Persons with Autism Spectrum Disorder
Eye of a Horse at The Equine Education Center currently offers learning and psychotherapy experiences for persons with Autism Spectrum Disorder, a group of neurodevelopmental disorders characterized by difficulties with social interactions, verbal and non-verbal communication, and restricted repetitive patterns of behavior, interest, and activities.
As with all our equine-assisted mental health programs, sessions for this special population involve no riding, as interactive activities with horses on the ground provide a wider variety of experiences which can address issues such as impulse control, anger management, problem-solving, and social functioning. Equine-assisted activities can build skills in non-verbal communication, self-awareness, focus, cooperation, boundaries, and empathy.
All exercises are monitored by a mental health professional and an equine specialist. Therapeutic work is accomplished in either an enclosed round pen with specially trained horses or out in large opened pasture areas with herds of semi-wild horses and cows, many of which have never been touched.
For individuals with severe autism, tasks, such as rolling a ball to a horse, playing fetch with a horse, or feeding a horse, are broken down into small, discrete steps, and those steps are repeatedly trained in a systematic and precise way. Sensory deficits are addressed utilizing grooming and petting activities. Bonding and relationship skills are also a focus of these exercises.
For adolescents and adults with Asperger’s syndrome, also known as high-functioning autism, equine-assisted learning is one of the few treatment modalities that offer opportunities to address social skills deficits in a setting which does not require interaction with other human beings, who can potentially respond with judgment and condemnation when the inevitable social mistakes are made. Instead, sociability problems are addressed through interactions with horses and cows which are living, breathing, responsive “beings” that can provide direct and immediate feedback—through their actions—without judgment, bias or criticism. These animals are amazingly forgiving and, unless intentional cruelty is involved, will always give humans another chance.
Moreover, since these animals don’t talk, clients need not be concerned with verbal language, which can overshadow the vitally important non-verbal aspects of relationships and social interaction. Indeed, it is often these non-verbal features of communication that are most challenging for persons with Asperger’s. Consequently, equine-assisted programs are particularly well-suited for this population, which needs a safe, non-threatening environment to practice non-verbal skills with “body language” experts, such as horses and cows.
Learning to work with others is another challenge faced by many persons with autism. Group equine-assisted activities with peers offer opportunities to focus on communication, team-building, and leadership skills while engaging in activities that most individuals find to be fun and enjoyable. These small group exercises might entail encouraging an “at liberty” horse to go through an obstacle course. Three or four participants work together to build the obstacle course, set goals, assign roles and carry out the task. Other group exercises may involve working together in order to “cut” one particular horse out of a herd of a dozen horses and encourage him to go into an adjoining area through a narrow gate. All group activities are closely monitored by staff that provides on-going encouragement and feedback throughout the activities with a final debriefing at the conclusion. This model of experiential hands-on learning with accompanying review is a powerful methodology for teaching new skills.
Dr. Michael McManmon, licensed psychologist and founder of a prominent post-secondary support program for young adults on the Autism Spectrum, explains the benefits of non-mounted equine-assisted activities conducted with untrained horses and then describes his own personal response to this model of psychotherapy.
In this video clip, a social thinking instructor points out the benefits of non-mounted equine-assisted activities as her students, who are all young adults with Asperger's Syndrome, are seen engaging in activities with semi-wild Florida Cracker horses on a 4700-acre nature preserve and then directing specially trained horses through an obstacle course utilizing appropriate non-verbal communication.
Dr. Michael Mcmanmon experiences a session in social skills building using an equine-assisted learning model. In attempting to connect with a colt which has never been touched, Michael initially struggles in his communication efforts. By the end of this hour-long session, he learns to accurately decipher the colt's feedback and modulate his own communication in turn. Michael shares two profound insights about his own life-long interpersonal style that come into his awareness during this process. This clip illustrates an innovative experiential approach to teaching social skills.
Two teens with Asperger's Syndrome debrief an equine-assisted learning session focused on social thinking and non-verbal communication skills. The video interview above was conducted four days after the session. Note how the young man is "reliving" his experience during the interview, as reflected in his body language, precisely mirroring the placement of his arms during the original experience four days earlier. This ability to bring back the experience with such perfect body memory reflects the emotional impact of this encounter.
Children struggling with the challenges of severe autism participate in structured equine-assisted activities that have been broken down into small discrete steps which can be repeatedly trained and reinforced in a systematic and precise way.