How the U.S. National Park System Is Welcoming Neurodiverse Travelers

Customized itineraries, social stories, and sensory kits help families pull off a seamless visit.

Trunks of several sequoias at Sequoia National Park during autumn

At Sequoia National Park, staff can support autistic travelers by helping customize an itinerary to meet their needs.

Photo by haveseen/Shutterstock

The sense of peace is palpable along the Big Trees Trail in California’s Sequoia National Park. All around my family, 2,000-year-old giant sequoia trees—some of the world’s oldest and largest—stand in quiet solitude in a mountain landscape suited specifically to their needs. My teenage son Bennett, who has autism, feels grounded here, too. Though he struggles to verbalize his feelings, I can tell by his calm behavior: Instead of fidgeting, he is perfectly happy to sit on a bench in the grove and look up at the trees.

Large crowds or long waits can be a challenge when we travel. We’ve come prepared with a sensory kit provided by our hotel in Visalia, a gateway town to Sequoia and Kings Canyon national parks. It’s also a Certified Autism Destination, a designation from the International Board of Credentialing and Continuing Education Standards for places that train staff in the hospitality sector to serve those on the spectrum. But it’s shoulder season and my husband, son, and I have the Giant Forest to ourselves—we don’t need the fidget toys that can help relieve anxiety for kids on the spectrum. Instead, nature is helping in that department.

Nature therapy

From a young age, we noticed that being active outdoors had a calming effect on our son. For individuals on the autism spectrum, immersion in the natural world has been shown to help with focus and self-regulation. In Canada, where we live, doctors can even prescribe forest visits for everyone to improve health—spending time in nature is proven to lower blood pressure, reduce stress, alleviate anxiety, and boost mood.

Given these health benefits, we include outside time on every trip. We’ve watched sea lions and blue-footed boobies in Loreto Bay National Marine Park in Mexico, kayaked in a cypress swamp near Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, and snorkeled off of Jamaica’s Seven Mile Beach from Beaches Negril, an autism-certified resort. Last year, while hiking at Haleakalā National Park on Maui, we learned that having a permanent disability like autism makes Bennett eligible for a free lifetime Access Pass from the U.S. National Park Service—a huge incentive for us to explore America’s protected wild places. (Although this pass is just for U.S. citizens and permanent residents, my son is a dual U.S. and Canadian citizen, like myself. At parks that charge fees per vehicle, it admits the pass owner and all passengers in the car. At sites where per-person fees are charged, it admits the pass owner plus three adults.)

But it’s not just Mother Nature working her magic in these parks: The National Park Service is starting to meet us halfway. Accessibility is top of mind at U.S. national parks, where inclusion is beginning to expand beyond physical accommodations like wheelchair access and ASL interpretation to include support for neurodiverse travelers in the form of social stories, sensory guides, and staff who can respond to families’ needs by suggesting calming spots or less-crowded trails.

“We’re starting to see a lot more families, and organizations that support people who are neurodiverse, coming to the parks and asking for [supports],” says Jeremy Buzzell, manager of the Park Accessibility for Visitors and Employees (PAVE) program with the National Park Service.

Parks are looking at how they communicate with visitors, and what support they can offer, through an autism or neurodivergent lens, says Buzzell, adding that hundreds of National Park Service staff have undergone online autism sensitivity training where they learned to recognize and respond to individuals on the spectrum, by asking families how they could help (rather than make assumptions) or offering suggestions and directions to quiet spaces.

A teenage boy in Sequoia National Park near giant sequoias (left) and kayaking near rocky island (right)

The author’s son, Bennett, feeling grounded in Sequoia (left) and kayaking among seabirds in Channel Islands National Park (right)

Photos by Blake Ford and Lisa Kadane

How California parks are helping neurodiverse visitors

Before visiting Sequoia, we watched the park’s new accessibility film series to give Bennett an idea of what to expect in the park. To avoid crowds, which can be a trigger for autistic people, we arrive early to see popular attractions like Tunnel Log, then head for spots that are less busy. This is how we end up on the Big Trees Trail rather than visiting the General Sherman Tree, which park staff warn us can be crowded with a long line for a photo op.

“Our biggest tip [for travelers with autism] would be to stop by a visitor center and let them know what your needs are,” says Sintia Kawasaki-Lee, communications officer for Sequoia and Kings Canyon. “Our park staff would be more than happy to help you customize an itinerary to meet those needs.”

Families can also sign up for a private tour with Sequoia Parks Conservancy, a park partner with experience leading programs for families with a member on the spectrum. These tailored tours, which cost $125 per hour for a group of up to 12, highlight the park’s quieter areas or zero in on a specific interest, like looking for insects along the Tokopah Falls Trail, says program coordinator Rebecca Jones.

Channel Islands, one of the state’s least-visited national parks, which we visited prior to Sequoia, highlights tactile exhibits in its visitor center, and the park’s online accessibility guide suggests quiet spots where travelers can go to decompress. The park also warns of loud noises from seabirds and sea lions; rather than startle Bennett, the screeching and barking gave him a case of the giggles.

At Death Valley, a digital sensory guide rates how the park’s often harsh landscapes impact various senses. There’s also a series of online “social stories,” which are digital booklets that prepare neurodiverse visitors by describing aspects of the park so they know what to expect.

Death Valley also loans out sensory kits with tools like polarized sunglasses, noise-canceling headphones, and a cooling towel and squirt bottle, to help sensitive individuals cope with the park’s extreme sun, wind, and heat. On a previous trip, we came prepared with a hat, shades, and water, and Bennett didn’t seem to mind the gales at Badwater Basin or getting sand in his shoes at Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes.

Cognitive inclusion at other National Park Service sites

Cognitive accessibility awareness isn’t limited to national parks in California. National historic sites and preserves are supporting neurodiversity across the country.

Gettysburg National Military Park in Pennsylvania held its first “sensory friendly day” in 2023, where park staff turn off the battle sounds, hand out fidget toys, and offer a quiet room for guests who need a bit more help regulating.

“We’ve been blown away by the response,” says Christopher Gwinn, chief of interpretation and education at Gettysburg. Nearly 200 visitors participated in the two 2024 events that have already taken place. There are plans to make the program more regular.

At Lincoln Home National Historic Site in Illinois, tips for visitors with cognitive or learning disabilities are posted online, and sensory kits are available at the visitor center front desk. In Kentucky, Mammoth Cave National Park prepares neurodiverse travelers for the dark, crowded, and potentially claustrophobic cave tours by letting them know exactly what to expect while underground via detailed descriptions available online. (Those with cognitive disabilities are encouraged to let rangers know if there might be concerns.)

And guests who use visual schedules are in luck at Big Thicket National Preserve in Texas, where the visitor center lends out Velcro task boards so families can plot their day exploring the park’s forests, bogs, and bayous (sensory kits are available, too). Similarly, this summer Yellowstone National Park is launching picture-based communication boards that will help families with a neurodiverse member plan their time in the park.

“We are seeing more parks that are interested in these [kinds of tools],” says Buzzell. “We’re headed in the right direction.”

Lisa Kadane is a British Columbia-based journalist who writes about family travel, adventure and accessibility for U.S. and Canadian publications. Her work has appeared in AFAR, BBC Travel, Garden & Gun, the Toronto Star, Reader’s Digest, Travel + Leisure, and more.
From Our Partners
Sign up for our newsletter
Join more than a million of the world’s best travelers. Subscribe to the Daily Wander newsletter.
More From AFAR