Updated: Jul 29
“Urban Hike with Mike” brings young adults with autism and related challenges to neighborhood restaurants on the CTA
Noise, strangers, unpredictability. Not to mention the smells. Taking public transit can be sensory overload for anybody, but for people with autism and related challenges, riding the bus and train can be especially overwhelming. Figuring out how to get a Ventra card, navigating different stations and mapping routes can also present unique challenges.
“Getting used to taking public transit is really critical because it helps build independence, and by doing it over and over again, we have some participants who can take themselves out for a burger or to an appointment on their own,” said Mike Tracy, a co-founder of Urban Autism Solutions and the originator of “Urban Hike with Mike,” a weekly field trip open to young adults with autism and related challenges who need minimal supports.
The Hike brings participants to a different neighborhood in Chicago every Wednesday via public transportation, always involves a little walking (usually two to three miles) and ends up at a local restaurant. Everyone is expected to have their own transit fare and pay for their own inexpensive (usually under $15) meal. The group meets in the Little Italy neighborhood before setting out.
Mike has been leading the hike since 2015 and has visited more than 35 neighborhoods. “We try not to go to the same restaurant twice in one year,” he said. The Hike has a core group of regulars and usually draws between four and ten attendees.
Mike is a neighborhood aficionado and loves to explore. Ask him about any neighborhood in Chicago, and virtually any restaurant, and he’s been there and knows something about it. Mike, who is the principal of a private investment partnership, spends a lot of time with young adults with autism through his involvement with Urban Autism Solutions, which he co-founded with his wife Julie in 2012. They established the non-profit, which provides social and vocational opportunities for young adults with autism and related challenges, in part because their son John, 28, has autism. John has visited more than 100 restaurants with his dad and the group over the years.
“We love walking and eating,” said John, who works at Trader Joe’s on Roosevelt Rd.
People with autism have unique challenges that can include communication issues, problems following complex directions, oversensitivity to loud noises, anxiety around strangers and unpredictable situations and a hard time interpreting and reacting to social cues – all of which can make taking public transportation difficult. A significant portion of people with autism also don’t drive, Mike explained. There can also be problems dealing with money and knowing how much things cost.
“When we go on the hike, we’re breaking down how we’re going to get where we’re going, we’re ordering from the menu, getting to know different neighborhoods, and having a great time. We’ve also survived a lot of weird stuff together on the train,” said Mike, referring to the sometimes-bizarre behavior common on public trans. “And we’ve survived every encounter.”
Most of the Hike regulars are seasoned pros at riding the ‘L’ and bus, expertly using the Ventra payment system and the CTA app. The core Hikers include John, Jack, 27 and Alan, 35, who won’t miss a hike even if it falls on his mom’s birthday.
On a recent Hike to the Cicero neighborhood where the group ate at Freddy’s Pizza, they reminisced about other restaurants they’ve visited.
There seems to be a strong leaning towards burger places. “I saw a list of Chicago’s Best Burgers somewhere, and we just went to all of them,” Mike said.
When asked what his favorite burger is, John doesn’t hesitate: “Small Cheval,” he says. Illinois Bar & Grill, out by Midway Airport, was another much-loved burger place, and one of John’s favorites.
The Hike began as a way to continue getting out after the Millennium Park Summer Film Series ended after Labor Day. The first outing was to Bridgeport where the group visited Fabulous Freddies and Palmisano Park. “We’ve been going out every Wednesday since then rain or shine unless there’s really bad weather,” said Mike.
“The guys have gotten a ton of fresh air and exercise, learned their way around the city a little, become more comfortable taking public transportation, sampled some of the city's ‘finer’ restaurants and hopefully developed an appreciation of this wonderful town in which we live,” Mike said.
To learn more about Urban Hike with Mike, and for the meeting location, please email firstname.lastname@example.org
Community areas and neighborhoods visited on the Hike include: Albany Park, Andersonville, Armour Square, Beverly, Bridgeport, Buena Park, Chinatown, Cicero, Dearborn Park, DePaul, Edgewater, the Gold Coast, Goose Island, Greektown, Humboldt Park, Hyde Park, Irving Park, Lake View, Lincoln Park, Lincoln Square, Logan Square, the Loop, Lower West Side, the Magnificent Mile, Near North Side, Near South Side, Near West Side, North Center, Old Town, Palmer Square, Pilsen, the Prairie Avenue Historic District, Printers Row, Ravenswood, Roscoe Village, South Loop, Ukrainian Village, Uptown the Villa, West Town and Wicker Park.
Some of the restaurants visited on the Hike include: Joy Yee, Clark Street Dog, The Wieners Circle, Falafel Grill, Feed, McDonalds, Steak n’ Egger, Dons, Express Grill, Coyotes, Goddess and Grocer, Punta Cana, Mr. Greek Gyros, Baba Pita, Al's Beef, Pete's Red Hots, IDOF (I Dream of Falafel), Big Wig Tacos, Roti, Carm's, Fontano's, Nando's, Top Notch Beef Burgers, Valois, Morrie O'Malley's, Blaze Pizza, Big and Little’s, White Castle, Harold's Chicken, Good Stuff Eatery, Shake Shack, Devil Dawgs, Latin American Restaurant, Epic Burger, Lupita’s, La Vaca, Bop n Grill, Freshii, Lagunitas Brewery, Yoli’s Tacos, Fatso's Last Stand, Late Night Thai, Cemitas Puebla, Kuma's Corner, Five Guys, Philly's Best, The Jibarito, Pita Heaven, Dorite Donuts and Chicken, Grill and Garden, Mello's, The Art of Pizza, Cafe Tola, BRGRBELLY, Caricerias Guanajuato, Mini Mot, Bombay Wraps, French Market, Native Foods, El Milagro, Starship Restaurant, Freddy's Pizza, Ricobene's, Fabulous Freddies, Lawrence's Fish and Shrimp, La Bomba, Carbon Live Fire Mexican Grill, Revival Food Hall, Navy Pier Food Court, Smoque BBQ, Momo Factory, Busy Burger, Bibibop, Cafecito, Dr. Murphy's Food Hall, Janson's Drive In, Super Dawg, Johnsen's Blue Top Drive In, Russel's Barbeque, Time Out Market, Parson's, Tortilleria y Taquerias Atotoncilo, Teryiaki Madness, Root's Pizza, Taco Maya, Chopsticks, Flaco’s Tacos, Spanglish, Dona Torta, Raising Cane’s, Culver's, The Clampdown, Illinois Bar and Grill, Crisp, Small Cheval, Choppers.