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Exploring The City, One Restaurant At A Time — How ‘Urban Hikes’ Build Confidence For Young Adults With Autism

Mike Tracy started the program when he and his son were looking for ways to explore the city. Since 2015, the group has visited more than 70 restaurants in all corners of the city.

Eric, Mike Tracy and Bradon Byrd pose for a photo at Mini Mott, 3057 W. Logan Blvd. on Nov. 17, 2021.
Amy Qin/Block Club Chicago
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NEAR WEST SIDE — Mike Tracy meets up with a group of young people for dinner and a “hike” around a neighborhood in Chicago every Wednesday evening.

Tracy, co-founder of Urban Autism Solutions, a Chicago-based nonprofit dedicated to providing social and vocational opportunities for young adults with autism, has facilitated these trips to nearly every corner of the city — from West Ridge to Beverly — roughly every week of the year, rain or shine.

The trips, called Urban Hike with Mike, started in 2015 when Tracy and his son, John, were looking for ways to get outside and build confidence exploring the city. 

“My son and I like two things: walking and eating,” he said.

After a couple of summers going to Subways and the movies at Millennium Park, the duo decided they wanted to find new places to explore and turned their excursions into a weekly, year-long program.

Fast forward six years and the group has been to more than 70 restaurants in Chicago and beyond. 

“I really like exploring all the neighborhoods I’m not usually in,” said John Tracy, who has gone on almost every hike and whose favorite neighborhood so far is Wicker Park.

Credit: Amy Qin/Block Club Chicago
John Tracy places an order for a burger at Mini Mott, 3057 W. Logan Blvd., on Nov. 17, 2021.

Crowds on the train, navigating transfers, ordering from a menu and going to a new part of town can be overwhelming for anyone, but they present particular challenges to people with autism, who might be sensitive to loud noises and feel anxious around strangers, Mike Tracy said. 

Urban Hike with Mike helps participants learn the “rules of the city and how to navigate your way around,” Tracy said. The goal is to help the young adults be more independent and feel confident traversing the city on their own. 

“They’re all getting more confident [and] more comfortable. The more things you see, the more you get used to it, and it prepares you for seeing it again,” Tracy said. 

Each week, the group meets at 4:30 p.m. and takes public transit to wherever they’re going that day. Everyone pays for their own transit fare and meal, which is usually less than $15.

“We try not to repeat the same restaurant in a year,” Tracy said.

This Wednesday, hikers took a packed Blue Line up to Mini Mott, 3057 W. Logan Blvd. in Logan Square. After enjoying burgers, fries and good conversation, they left to take a 2-mile walk, or “urban hike,” down Milwaukee Avenue near the Logan Square “L” stop to the Blue Line stop at Damen. 

“It’s good interaction, social interaction, and I get exercise. And I don’t have to be with my parents, so it’s kind of a win-win,” said hiker Eric, who asked not to use his last name. 

While waiting for the Blue Line up to Logan, Bradon Byrd, a core member of the group, said he was very excited for burgers.

“I go to [the hikes] when I want to try something newer,” Byrd said. “I like being with the company here, men or women, and mostly, they feel like a family to me. I can be a part of some[thing] that’s not my family.”

Like Byrd, many hikers come almost every week and are committed to showing up Wednesdays. 

“We have another young man, he’s very social and he loves the hike,” Tracy said. “One time his mother’s birthday fell on a Wednesday, and he asked her to move it to a Tuesday so he could come to the hike.”

To learn more about the program and how to join, email info@urbanautismsolutions.com.

Credit: Amy Qin/Block Club Chicago
The Urban Hike with Mike group poses outside of Mini Mott, 3057 W. Logan Blvd., on Nov. 17, 2021.

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