Outdoor Exploration for All Abilities

Each individual experiences the outside world differently and brings a unique perspective on how to enjoy the natural world – a sentiment local mom and MetroParks human resources and volunteer manager Jenny Hymans often reminds those around her.

What started with a tiny speck of light on an ultrasound turned into a long journey for the Hymans family that culminated with an even brighter light: Caroline Hymans.

“Fifty percent of children with down syndrome are likely born with some level of heart defect, which was the first thing we learned about Caroline,” said Hymans. “They found the tiniest speck of light – a heart defect – during an ultrasound before we found out she had down syndrome.”

March 21 is World Down Syndrome Day 2024.  This global day of awareness is held the 21st day of the third month to signify the uniqueness of the triplication (trisomy) of the 21st chromosome that causes down syndrome.

Caroline, 9, loves bugs, is a frequent parkgoer and is a MetroParks staff favorite at the agency’s many events.

While Caroline has limited mobility and is currently unable to walk on her own, her family ensures that her disabilities don’t prohibit her from experiencing all the things kids enjoy – including spending time outdoors.

“She really loves being outside, and it’s something she’s grown into in spite of her sensory struggles,” said Hymans.

Because Caroline is non-verbal and has a sensory processing disorder, it took the Hymans family time and patience to assess her comfort level not just outdoors, but in many spaces.

“Some of the stereotypes are that people with down syndrome are always happy, bubbly and easy to talk to, but they have the full range of emotions just like everyone else,” said Hymans. “Her physical characteristics indicate she has down syndrome, but people might not know she has other challenges.”

Indeed, this is especially true of Caroline because she is neurodivergent. Hymans often has to remind people who approach Caroline to say “hello.” She also reminds them that, while Caroline has down syndrome, she also has autism and may not be as receptive to social interaction – something true of many people on the autism spectrum.

“People are still so caught up in the physical and what we see and what we label, when the depths of who we are is invisible,” said Hymans.

Caroline has grown to love the touch of grass and the feeling of wind on her face – simple experiences that can be enjoyed by many people.

“When she got her communication tablet, one of the things she announced to her class was that she loves bugs,” said Hymans. “She really enjoys going outside, and for us that is a safe thing. We struggle to do everything we can enjoy, but going to the parks is a great experience we can all do to have bonding time together as a family.”

Hymans and her husband, James, have two additional daughters — Amelie, 14, and Lily, 5 — both of whom are “neurotypical.” Finding family experiences that engage their entire family can take some thought.

For those who may have family dynamics that include children who are neurodivergent or differently abled, Hymans suggests the following MetroParks experiences:

– Wegerzyn Gardens MetroPark: Because this garden park is pretty accessible and there’s so much to do, Hymans highly recommends this as a destination for an afternoon picnic and playtime. Hymans’ children especially enjoy the Children’s Discovery Garden because they can splash, play in the sand, climb and play hide-and-seek. They also love exploring the formal gardens. Hymans recommends stopping by during different times of the year and especially after a long workday to decompress.

-Possum Creek MetroPark: An instant hit with the Hymans family, Possum Creek MetroPark
became a regular destination for them during the pandemic. They really enjoyed the nature play area, visiting with the chickens and rabbits, and relaxing by the fishing ponds. The family really enjoys that this MetroPark feels far away, but it’s close to downtown Dayton while still being peaceful and quiet.

-Englewood MetroPark: A fall staple for the Hymans family, they love checking out the changing leaves and the crunchy sounds they make during a hike. The nature play area is also a hit – especially the slide.

While each of these parks feature natural-surface trails, Caroline uses a medical stroller to traverse longer trails with her family. Caroline’s medical stroller can be used on many of MetroParks’ natural-surface trails. For other trail experiences, James carries Caroline so she can experience all or some of the hiking experiences. Your MetroParks also include numerous paved trails, including portions of those in the Dayton region — home to the nation’s largest paved trail network.

You can plan your next MetroParks trip by visiting metroparks.org and by downloading MetroParks’ free mobile app at metroparks.org/mobile. For more on the region’s paved trail network, visit Miami Valley Trails.

What is…

– Down Syndrome: Also known as trisomy 21, down syndrome is the most common genetic disorder in the United States and is caused by the presence of all or part of a third copy of chromosome 21. Down syndrome occurs in about one in every 700 babies.

– Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD): A neurological and developmental disorder that affects how people interact with others, communicate, learn and behave

– Neurodivergent: Describes people whose brain processes information in a way that is not typical of most individuals (especially with regard to ASD)

– Neurotypical: Describes individuals with typical neurological development or functioning

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