All of our clients are unique, even with the same diagnosis. But diagnoses do have defining factors, and we can follow some general guidelines for assisting our clients as they strive to reach their goals. This is the first entry in a series of blogs about diagnoses we often see and how we provide a therapeutic experience. This is by no means meant to be the final word, but perhaps helpful to you as you volunteer in our classes.
Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASDs) by Definition
“Autism spectrum disorders (ASDs) are a group of developmental disabilities that can cause significant social, communication and behavioral challenges. People with ASDs handle information in their brain differently than other people. ASDs are ‘spectrum disorders.’ That means ASDs affect each person in different ways, and can range from very mild to severe. People with ASDs share some similar symptoms, such as problems with social interaction. But there are differences in when the symptoms start, how severe they are, and the exact nature of the symptoms.” (http://www.cdc.gov/ncbddd/autism/facts.html)
What We See Here
Clients come here with varying ability to focus. They can be very verbal, or have low or no known verbal skills. Clients can be very wiggly or rocking, or be very quiet with their bodies. It’s not uncommon for these clients to display self-stimulation (“stimming”) behavior, have tactile aversions, or singularly focus on one object, activity or person.
Common Goals to Achieve
Is the client listening to and following directions? Is the client willing to touch the horse or touch a beanie baby? Is the client able to communicate effectively with the horse (this can be verbal or nonverbal)? Is the client responding to the volunteers and/or instructor? Is client able to focus on one activity? Is the client accepting of the input from the horse’s movement?
Beneficial Class Dynamics, Exercises and Games
Both mounted and unmounted activities can be useful. Group lessons encourage socialization, but sometimes it is better to have a private session to control the amount of stimuli. Some suggested activities are: obstacle courses, relay races, stop-and-go games, trotting, sensory trails, riding outdoors, ball and ring games. The activity can be designed to encourage as much interaction as possible, and to encourage focus and communication, whether with horse or with person.
Typical Support Needed
A horse handler and 1-2 sidewalkers to provide safety, support and coaching.
What We Have Witnessed
“…Dylan had never been on a horse before. He went around the indoor arena with multiple spotters of support surrounding him since he also had low muscle tone. I felt that Dylan was very safe in their care. As I watched him go on the bumpy pony ride I heard him say “SO FUN”. I began to cry uncontrollably I may add, because it had been over a year since I had heard him speak. This was the breakthrough that Dylan needed and to be honest, what I needed at his mother to believe that there was something out there to help him.” — Parent of client
“Having a child with Autism is challenging as there is no single prescription for what works – nobody gives you a list of things to do that will help your child. Each child on the spectrum has individualized needs that are ever evolving, and parents and caretakers need to be ever vigilant in researching therapeutic options…Of all the therapies and activities Maggie engages in, horseback riding is her favorite…I watch Maggie walking back from the barn after a lesson, chatting and laughing with her riding friends and instructor, and I see the “real Maggie” — a completely relaxed young girl just sparkling with happiness and laughter…The sensory input Maggie receives from the rhythm of riding visibly relaxes her and helps her transition from the school week to her weekend. Much more than these things, Maggie has gained confidence in herself, both as a rider and as a person. She shows empathy and encouragement to her Windrush classmates, and tries very hard to translate these skills into her life outside of Windrush.” — Parent of client
As always, many thanks to our instructors for their help and expertise writing this blog.