Equine Therapy for Aspergers Children

"We have heard that therapy using animals is an effective method for treating symptoms of AS. Is there one animal therapy that stands out above the rest, or one that is recommended more often?"

Typical treatment programs for Aspergers (high-functioning autism) focus on behavior modification and improvement. The complexity of the behaviors is gradually increased in an attempt to help the person continue developing. Medication is sometimes prescribed to people with Aspergers, but only to control symptoms like hyperactivity or seizures. There's currently no known cure for Aspergers.

Research into animal assisted therapy is fairly new. However, even among professionals who believe more research is in order, there's a general consensus that therapy animals can be a highly beneficial addition to treatment programs for kids with Aspergers.

Equine assisted therapy seems to have the best results. The rhythmic motion of riding a horse causes the kids to focus on the movement - which is slow, deliberate, and relaxing. The youngster indirectly learns how to focus better, which is aided by the calming effect of riding. Some equine therapy ranches have a policy of letting the horse pick the youngster, rather than "assigning" the youngster and horse to each other. It's a unique method that has had excellent results. A staff person will lead a youngster to a horse, and watch for the horse's reaction. If the horse dips his head or nuzzles the youngster, it's an indication that a bond is being formed and the youngster has been "chosen".

In addition to the movement experienced when riding the horse, tactile senses are stimulated. The horse's skin is fuzzy, the mane and tail are rough, and the nose is soft. Discovery of these sensations often helps draw a youngster out, stimulating development of his or her verbal communication and interest in other physical objects.

Motor skills are also developed as the youngster learns to ride, and eventually groom and tack. Equine therapy offers a safe, secure environment where a therapist or other staff person will be close at hand as new skills are learned. These new skills, and the youngster's continued improvement upon them, increase her self-confidence, which increases her desire and willingness to learn skills at home and/or at school. Learning is no longer scary, but fun, interesting and rewarding.

A youngster's ability to interact socially is often improved as well. The therapy sessions teach the youngster how to interact with the counselor and staff people. Group sessions allow the youngster to work and play with other kids and counselors, to learn how to handle relational conflict, and how to help others. Counselors who have consistently included equine assisted therapy in their development programs for autistic kids always have stories to tell of the dramatic improvements they see in the kids. Not only is basic communication and motor skills improved, but many kids experience improvements in their overall moods. Kids who before experienced angry outbursts or who rarely smiled are suddenly calmer, and smile more readily and frequently.

As with other types of animal assisted therapy, the introduction of the animal seems to calm and soothe kids. The playful nature of animals seems to draw autistic kids out of their "shells". Kids who start to isolate themselves have become more open as a result of equine assisted therapy. Often, they begin making eye contact with the animal first, then with other people. Soon after that, the youngster often becomes more relationally open; again, with the animal first, then with people.

Working with an animal such as a horse offers the youngster with Aspergers a safe, non-judgmental and tolerant relationship in which to practice both verbal and non-verbal communication skills. Communication is power when a command such as "Giddyup!" or "Giddup!" makes the horse go and "Whoa!" or "Ho!" makes it stop.

The Aspergers youngster can also learn to recognize the impact of his own behavior on others while working with a horse. If he yells at a horse, the animal won't come near him. If he speaks gently, it will.

During equine therapy, a licensed mental health professional will use the structured activity, whether feeding, grooming, haltering or even riding the horse to help the youngster to meet specific goals. The youngster may be asked to interpret how the animal is feeling by observing non-verbal cues, or to practice taking turns talking and listening while having a conversation with the therapist about the activity. He may join a group of other kids at the stable to discuss various aspects of horsemanship, practicing communication skills and age-appropriate topics of conversation.

In a challenging world, the Aspergers kid with horsemanship skills will have new (and age-appropriate) topics of conversation, new communication and social skills to apply to human relationships, and of course, a new friend in a therapy horse.


Anonymous said...

We have horses. My daughter has been around them all her life. She is 9 now and trail riding by herself. We have noticed a huge change in how much more loving she has become. She has always been affectionate towards adults but now it is completely without hesitation. Being around the horses really relaxes her; especially after a stressful day at school :) JPO

listenstohorses said...

I give horsemanship lessons and had a father call me and ask about my feelings on working with his 10 year old daughter with aspergers. I learned so much. She and I are still friends today. She is 20 years old now and rides horses for a top trainer.

Raising Kids with Autism Spectrum Disorder: Parents' Grief and Guilt

Some parents grieve for the loss of the youngster they   imagined  they had. Moms and dads have their own particular way of dealing with the...