A Masterclass in the User Experience  – The Autism Nature Trail 

Apr 27, 2023 | Know-How, Podcast | 0 comments



Jennifer Sertl and Loren Penman, Co-Chair, Autism Nature Trail (The ANT) at Letchworth State Park discuss the history of The ANT and the design principles that went into creating the mile-long trail. The level of expertise that went into creating the eight stations along the loop is a masterclass in the user-experience. Reminding all of us in innovation to ensure that we design our services and products with the end user all along the way.

Accessibility has been a core value of our team from the beginning as we began as a B Corps to signal our commitment to creating value for our employees, for our shareholders, our customers and ultimately the planet.  

The Circle Optics origin story came from our founder Zan Niazi’s curiosity about the question: If Google has cameras around the world mapping the streets to the planet, why can’t you strap on a headset and roam around the streets of Italy or walk around the Great Pyramid of Giza in full 360-degree video, and not just static photos? The fundamental problem all 360-degree cameras have is something called stitching, where you basically get these artifacts and distortions in the imagery because every camera has a different perspective in the way they see the world. When you fuse together multiple cameras’ perspectives, you get artifacts and distortion. At Circle Optics, we have finally solved the stitching problem, eliminating thousands of dollars per minute of cost for 360-degree video content. We have high quality lenses without distortion. All the users need to do is simply press the button and the stitch-free video is available instantaneously.  We believe this technology will revolutionize the way people share their experiences.  

Mechanical engineer Cody Hatch and Director of Marketing Jennifer Sertl recently had an opportunity to meet and visit  Loren Penman Co-Chair, The Autism Nature Trail and felt it was an immersive experience that we want our entire Circle Optics community to know about.  The level of expertise that went into creating the eight stations along the loop is a masterclass in the user-experience. Reminding all of us in innovation to ensure that we design our services and products with the end user all along the way.

You can listen to the program anywhere you listen to podcasts:

Spreaker: https://www.spreaker.com/user/rocvoxstudio/113-loren-4-26-23-mixdown

Apple: https://podcasts.apple.com/us/podcast/360-pulse/id1664584981?i=1000610868347

Spotify https://open.spotify.com/show/3Zmm913j6ktjVKeARFB1Sa

To support as many people as possible having access to this conversation, here is a transcript: 


In the year 2000, the Centers for Disease Control was reporting the incidence of autism spectrum disorder at about 1-150 school aged children using a monitoring system which estimates the prevalence of autism among 8 year olds. Ten years later, the incidence jumped to 1 in 69. The current statistics issued in March 2023 for 2020 monitoring is now 1 in 36. 

The reasons for the meteoric rise are up for interpretation, but certainly a better understanding of autism spectrum disorder plays a role. 

ADD currently is diagnosed through symptoms that include the following:

  • significant challenges with social skills
  • speech and language deficits
  • sensory sensitivities 
  • repetitive behaviors

It is truly  a spectrum. Dr. Stephen Shore (an autism advocate who himself is autistic) has said, “if you have met one person with autism, you have met one person with autism.” 

Far more important than asking what causes autism, is the importance of acknowledging its prevalence and supporting families who have it. 


I spent a lot of my professional career speaking – I like to talk. However, one of the most important qualities that has made the biggest difference is my ability to listen. In designing the Autism Nature Trail (The ANT) we wanted to create a unique experience in deep nature for a visitor who may have never been to a state park before. I had to listen to ensure I didn’t make assumptions.  A disability rights slogan applies universally: NOTHING ABOUT US WITHOUT US! 

Designing a premium experience with expertise was our vision and we assembled an incredible group of experts. We consulted the very top name in autism circles, Dr. Temple Grandin, included in Time 100, an annual list of the 100 most influential people in the world. In addition to being a remarkable spokesperson for autism, Grandin is a prominent proponent for the humane treatment of livestock for slaughter and the author of more than 60 scientific papers on animal behavior.  She did not speak until she was four years old and it was recommended that she be institutionalized. Her mother had the courage to learn how to help her learn at home. Very inspiring. From her we were able to build The ANT with these design principles:

  • Stay in deep nature; don’t build a strip mall nature trail (even when others try to convince you to move it closer to a city)
  • Design a pre-walk station to orient visitors and ease them into the forest
  • Make the trail a loop so the end is visible at the beginning for a sense of security 
  • Be sure visitors know they are safely on the trail -with visible marking 
  • Offer challenges to individuals who may have never been on a nature trail, but provide choices to “opt out” of the experience
  • Meltdowns are bound to occur, so build safe places for recovery without having to return to the parking lot and leave
  • Look for program planners and staff who are both autism experts AND experienced in the outdoors- not just one or other other. 

We were able to include all of these principles. We began The Autism Nature Trail with a clean slate and did not try to modify it into something already in existence to fit a new purpose. We like to say “while others retrofit public places to make them accessible, we have created an accessible place and made it public.” 


One of Dr. Temple Gardin’s first books was called Thinking in Pictures (1995). She now says that she didn’t understand at the time that not every autistic person thinks in pictures as she had. Her learning has evolved as well. Her most recent book Visual Thinking (2022), explores the value of visual thinkers when places like school tend to value verbal thinkers. She has transformed the conversation about autism over the years, understanding that autism is not a disability but a different ability. 

Our collaboration with researchers, practitioners, designers, artists, educators and users of The ANT has kept us monitoring and adjusting to be accommodating to everyone. We didn’t plan on making the trail ADA-compliant until we realized how little it would take. Adding braille to the station marker signage was simple. Moving the Letchworth State Park’s TTY machine to a landline in the Nature Center contiguous to the trail – was a no brainer. 

We kept listening because inclusion is not something you do once – it is a mindset. With that mindset, it was easy to see how we could attract senior citizens with mobility or memory deficits, veterans with PTSD, day habilitation and group home clients. Our tag line became: A Nature Trail for All at Letchworth State Park.

One of the provisions of the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act was a cut in the cement of curbs at major intersections so that crossing with a wheelchair was possible. There was pushback in some places with reactions like,” We don’t have enough people with wheelchairs to justify all this reconstruction.” But something interesting happened. Moms with strollers, older folks with walkers, cyclists and skateboarders, and travelers with luggage all loved this adaptation.

This is now known as the “curb-cut effect.” When we create opportunities for underserved individuals, most often everybody benefits. 


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