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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.


Speech Therapy for Aspergers Children?

Many moms and dads of extremely verbal kids with Aspergers (high-functioning autism) are surprised when it is suggested that Speech Therapy may help their youngster with communication difficulties. The difficulties are not in how the youngster speaks or pronounces words, but rather in how the youngster perceives the meaning of other people's speech and how they respond to it.

There are many expressions we use that are confusing to a youngster with Aspergers. Until you listen closely to the kinds of questions your youngster asks about what other people say, this problem is an easy one to miss.

Here's an example reported by one parent:

The other night my husband was holding a wooden bowl in his hands. Our younger son said "Can I see that?" and put out his hands to hold it. Our older son with Aspergers immediately asked "Why do people always say what they don't mean?" This had us puzzled until we dug a little deeper and found out the reason for his confusion. My son stated, "Why do people say ‘can I see that’ when they really mean ‘can I hold that’?" There was no way in which my husband and I could explain to our son why people say something that isn't what they mean to our son's satisfaction. I suspect that this problem occurs daily in my son's life, contributing to his stress and anxiety in dealing with the school environment.

Speech therapy can assist this youngster with the understanding of what other people mean when they speak and do something completely different. Social skills can be incorporated into the speech therapy as well. 

The parent went on to say:

When I brought up speech therapy for my son, who is 12 and extremely verbal, at a recent school meeting, there were some rather skeptical looks pointed my way until I explained the theory that speech therapy is one way of helping kids with Aspergers extract the meaning of other people's speech. Using the incidence of the wooden bowl as an example of the difficulty my son has, the teachers understood and are now incorporating this into my son's IEP.

One of the main differences between a youngster with Aspergers and those with one of the other autism spectrum disorders is a lack of a clinically significant language delay. Per the DSM, if there is a clinically-significant language delay present (i.e., lack of communicative phrases by 3 years of age), then a diagnosis of Aspergers cannot be made. However, speech-language pathologists can assist kids with Aspergers in a variety of ways.

Social Skills Group—

One of the hallmark signs of an autism spectrum disorder, including Aspergers, is a lack of age-appropriate social skills. This may manifest in several ways including a lack of eye contact, the inability to merge into a group of peers or simply the lack of desire to participate in reciprocal communication.

Some social skills groups are facilitated by speech-language pathologists (SLP). The SLP, who understands the nuances of language and knowing that language is one of the main methods of communication, assists kids with Aspergers with acquiring social skills. Social skills in typically developing kids emerge as the youngster ages. In kids with Aspergers, these skills often have to be taught just as math facts are taught.

Pragmatic Language Instruction—

Pragmatic communication involves the use of language, changing the language based on a situation and following the basic rules of conversation. Some kids with Aspergers can be verbally gifted, yet it is not uncommon to find pragmatic language concerns in these kids.

Pragmatic language is basically the social use of language. Kids with Aspergers who also have pragmatic deficiencies may not understand how to take turns when engaged in a conversation with another youngster or even an adult. Other pragmatic language concerns include standing too close to a person while talking, coordinating facial expressions and eye contact in conversation and even understanding how to speak differently to a young youngster as opposed to an adult. SLPs can work with kids with Aspergers to help them understand the rules of social language.

Speech Articulation Concerns—

Some kids with Aspergers may present with speech articulation errors. This can be a result of low oral-motor muscle tone or perhaps a problem with the motor coordination required to make certain speech sounds. When a youngster with Aspergers doesn’t grow out of typical speech articulation errors, working with an SLP may help reduce these errors. As a result, the youngster is better understood by peers and adults which could possibly decrease social anxieties that the youngster has as a result of his articulation.

Speech therapy is a fixture among those with an autism spectrum disorder, including Aspergers. If you have a youngster with Aspergers and are concerned with one of the above issues, consider contacting your school’s SLP to request an assessment.


Helping Aspergers Students Deal with Anger: Advice for Teachers

Aspergers (high functioning autistic) kid’s anger presents challenges to educators committed to constructive, ethical, and effective youngster guidance. This post explores what we know about the components of Aspergers kid’s anger, factors contributing to understanding and managing anger, and the ways educators can guide kid’s expressions of anger.

Three Components of Anger—

Anger is believed to have three components (Lewis & Michalson, 1983):

The Emotional State of Anger. The first component is the emotion itself, defined as an affective or arousal state, or a feeling experienced when a goal is blocked or needs are frustrated. Fabes and Eisenberg (1992) describe several types of stress-producing anger provocations that young kids face daily in classroom interactions:
  • Conflict over possessions, which involves someone taking kid’s property or invading their space.
  • Issues of compliance, which often involve asking or insisting that kids do something that they do not want to do--for instance, wash their hands.
  • Physical assault, which involves one youngster doing something to another youngster, such as pushing or hitting.
  • Rejection, which involves a youngster being ignored or not allowed to play with peers.
  • Verbal conflict, for example, a tease or a taunt.

Expression of Anger—

The second component of anger is its expression. Some kids vent or express anger through facial expressions, crying, sulking, or talking, but do little to try to solve a problem or confront the provocateur. Others actively resist by physically or verbally defending their positions, self-esteem, or possessions in non-aggressive ways. Still other kids express anger with aggressive revenge by physically or verbally retaliating against the provocateur. Some kids express dislike by telling the offender that he or she cannot play or is not liked. Other kids express anger through avoidance or attempts to escape from or evade the provocateur. And some kids use adult seeking, looking for comfort or solutions from a teacher, or telling the teacher about an incident.

Educators can use youngster guidance strategies to help Aspergers students express angry feelings in socially constructive ways. Kids develop ideas about how to express emotions (Michalson & Lewis, 1985; Russel, 1989) primarily through social interaction in their families and later by watching television or movies, playing video games, and reading books (Honig & Wittmer, 1992). Some Aspergers students have learned a negative, aggressive approach to expressing anger (Cummings, 1987; Hennessy et al., 1994) and, when confronted with everyday anger conflicts, resort to using aggression in the classroom (Huesmann, 1988). A major challenge for early childhood educators is to encourage Aspergers students to acknowledge angry feelings and to help them learn to express anger in positive and effective ways.

An Understanding of Anger—

The third component of the anger experience is understanding - interpreting and evaluating - the emotion. Because the ability to regulate the expression of anger is linked to an understanding of the emotion (Zeman & Shipman, 1996), and because kid’s ability to reflect on their anger is somewhat limited, Aspergers students need guidance from educators and parents in understanding and managing their feelings of anger.

Understanding and Managing Anger—

The development of basic cognitive processes undergirds kid’s gradual development of the understanding of anger (Lewis & Saarni, 1985).

Self-Referential and Self-Regulatory Behaviors—Self-referential behaviors include viewing the self as separate from others and as an active, independent, causal agent. Self-regulation refers to controlling impulses, tolerating frustration, and postponing immediate gratification. Initial self-regulation in young kids provides a base for early childhood educators who can develop strategies to nurture kid’s emerging ability to regulate the expression of anger.

Memory—Memory improves substantially during early childhood (Perlmutter, 1986), enabling young kids to better remember aspects of anger-arousing interactions. Aspergers students who have developed unhelpful ideas of how to express anger (Miller & Sperry, 1987) may retrieve the early unhelpful strategy even after educators help them gain a more helpful perspective. This finding implies that educators may have to remind some Aspergers students, sometimes more than once or twice, about the less aggressive ways of expressing anger.

Language—Talking about emotions helps young Aspergers students understand their feelings (Brown & Dunn, 1996). The understanding of emotion in preschool kids is predicted by overall language ability (Denham, Zoller, & Couchoud, 1994). Educators can expect individual differences in the ability to identify and label angry feelings because kid’s families model a variety of approaches in talking about emotions.

Guiding Kid’s Expressions of Anger—

Educators can help Aspergers students deal with anger by guiding their understanding and management of this emotion. The practices described here can help Aspergers students understand and manage angry feelings in a direct and non-aggressive way.

Communicate with Moms and Dads—Some of the same strategies employed to talk with moms and dads about other areas of the curriculum can be used to enlist their assistance in helping Aspergers students learn to express emotions. For example, articles about learning to use words to label anger can be included in a newsletter to moms and dads.

Create a Safe Emotional Climate—A healthy early childhood setting permits kids to acknowledge all feelings, pleasant and unpleasant, and does not shame anger. Healthy classroom systems have clear, firm, and flexible boundaries.

Encourage Kids to Label Feelings of Anger—Educators and parents can help young Aspergers students produce a label for their anger by teaching them that they are having a feeling and that they can use a word to describe their angry feeling. A permanent record (a book or chart) can be made of lists of labels for anger (e.g., mad, irritated, annoyed), and the class can refer to it when discussing angry feelings.

Encourage Kids to Talk About Anger-Arousing Interactions—Preschool kids better understand anger and other emotions when adults explain emotions (Denham, Zoller, &Couchoud, 1994). When Aspergers students are embroiled in an anger-arousing interaction, educators can help by listening without judging, evaluating, or ordering them to feel differently.

Help Kids Develop Self-Regulatory Skills—Educators of infants and toddlers do a lot of self-regulation "work," realizing that the Aspergers students in their care have a very limited ability to regulate their own emotions. As Aspergers students get older, adults can gradually transfer control of the self to kids, so that they can develop self-regulatory skills.

Model Responsible Anger Management—Aspergers students have an impaired ability to understand emotion when adults show a lot of anger (Denham, Zoller, & Couchoud, 1994). Adults who are most effective in helping Aspergers students manage anger model responsible management by acknowledging, accepting, and taking responsibility for their own angry feelings and by expressing anger in direct and non-aggressive ways.

Use Books and Stories about Anger to Help Kids Understand and Manage Anger—Well-presented stories about anger and other emotions validate kid’s feelings and give information about anger (Jalongo, 1986; Marion, 1995). It is important to preview all books about anger because some stories teach irresponsible anger management.

Aspergers students guided toward responsible anger management are more likely to understand and manage angry feelings directly and non aggressively and to avoid the stress often accompanying poor anger management (Eisenberg et al., 1991). Educators can take some of the bumps out of understanding and managing anger by adopting positive guidance strategies.


More resources for parents of children and teens with High-Functioning Autism and Asperger's:

==> How To Prevent Meltdowns and Tantrums In Children With High-Functioning Autism and Asperger's

==> Parenting System that Significantly Reduces Defiant Behavior in Teens with Aspergers and High-Functioning Autism

==> Launching Adult Children with Asperger's and High-Functioning Autism: Guide for Parents Who Want to Promote Self-Reliance

==> Teaching Social Skills and Emotion Management to Children and Teens with Asperger's and High-Functioning Autism

==> Parenting Children and Teens with High-Functioning Autism: Comprehensive Handbook

==> Unraveling The Mystery Behind Asperger's and High-Functioning Autism: Audio Book


==> Parenting System that Reduces Problematic Behavior in Children with Asperger's and High-Functioning Autism

My child has been rejected by his peers, ridiculed and bullied !!!

Social rejection has devastating effects in many areas of functioning. Because the ASD child tends to internalize how others treat him, rejection damages self-esteem and often causes anxiety and depression. As the child feels worse about himself and becomes more anxious and depressed – he performs worse, socially and intellectually.

Click here to read the full article…

How to Prevent Meltdowns in Children on the Spectrum

Meltdowns are not a pretty sight. They are somewhat like overblown temper tantrums, but unlike tantrums, meltdowns can last anywhere from ten minutes to over an hour. When it starts, the Asperger's or HFA child is totally out-of-control. When it ends, both you and your child are totally exhausted. But... don’t breathe a sigh of relief yet. At the least provocation, for the remainder of that day -- and sometimes into the next - the meltdown can return in full force.

Click here for the full article...

Parenting Defiant Teens on the Spectrum

Although Aspergers [high-functioning autism] is at the milder end of the autism spectrum, the challenges parents face when disciplining a teenager on the spectrum are more difficult than they would be with an average teen. Complicated by defiant behavior, the teen is at risk for even greater difficulties on multiple levels – unless the parents’ disciplinary techniques are tailored to their child's special needs.

Click here to read the full article…

Older Teens and Young Adult Children with ASD Still Living At Home

Your older teenager or young “adult child” isn’t sure what to do, and he is asking you for money every few days. How do you cut the purse strings and teach him to be independent? Parents of teens with ASD face many problems that other parents do not. Time is running out for teaching their adolescent how to become an independent adult. As one mother put it, "There's so little time, yet so much left to do."

Click here to read the full article…

Parenting Children and Teens with High-Functioning Autism

Two traits often found in kids with High-Functioning Autism are “mind-blindness” (i.e., the inability to predict the beliefs and intentions of others) and “alexithymia” (i.e., the inability to identify and interpret emotional signals in others). These two traits reduce the youngster’s ability to empathize with peers. As a result, he or she may be perceived by adults and other children as selfish, insensitive and uncaring.

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to read the full article...

Highly Effective Research-Based Parenting Strategies for Children with Asperger's and HFA

Become an expert in helping your child cope with his or her “out-of-control” emotions, inability to make and keep friends, stress, anger, thinking errors, and resistance to change.

Click here for the full article...

My Aspergers Child - Syndicated Content