By Sebastian Rubino
Farm animals have been known to share a co-dependent relationship with humans as far back as civilization itself. Farm animals serve many purposes however there’s one that is often be overlooked: Therapy for autistic children. Green Chimneys and Pegasus, both based in Brewster, New York, conceived to simultaneously aid children and animals alike.
WORKING WITH ANIMALS
Green Chimneys is a day and residential school that serves children with social, emotional, and behavioral issues, including autism and other disabilities, while incorporating animals for therapeutic purposes as well as to help them learn. The school serves around 240 children using what Director of the Farm and Wildlife Center, Michael Kaufmann, calls nature-based interaction. With the help of a therapist, the children interact with the animals to refine their motor skills by feeding them, tending to their care, and grasping the emotional connection they can forge with animals.
“There is an amazing educational aspect to working with animals, as well as personal growth,” Kaufmann would like all to understand. “And then there’s also a recreational aspect to being outdoors with animals. The combination makes the children feel good.”
Since autistic people can find difficulty with understanding social cues, learning through and with animals can benefit them. It does not require a grasp of certain nuances such as sarcasm and tone of voice. Animals’ social cues are simple, a great foundation for learning more advanced social cues down the line.
Although Green Chimneys does have an equine therapy component, Pegasus focuses specifically on this as a means to therapeutically assist autistic children. Taking in children aged four and older, their methods have been able to help the children’s development exponentially, according to Pegasus Program Manager, Liz Fortes. “The movement of the horse organizes the child’s sensory system through the body,” Fortes explains. “While horseback riding helps strengthen the children’s core muscles and improves balance, thanks to the bond that the children develop with the horses, this union also is able to help some children develop speech, even if they were nonspeaking prior to that.” Fortes shares that one autistic boy was able to say “I love you” to a horse that he grew attached to, despite having never spoken before.
Such amazing results do not occur from riding horses alone. The therapists and staff at Pegasus utilize music to soothe the children and horses, as well as games to help the children learn to lead the horse. While a therapist plays a guitar, for example, a child can learn to steer the horse using rings, navigating around an obstacle course with orange cones. One child can throw the rings, not knowing what to do with them. But within a year, the child can learn to successfully use the rings for the intended purpose of steering. The child’s therapist makes it easier by having the child hold the rings on the count of ten, so the child eventually gets used to holding them without throwing at all.
Pegasus’ therapy helps boost confidence of autistic children. It gives them the feeling of independence by treating them with respect and care. “We don’t think about the diagnosis,” Fortes wants us all to understand. “We think about whatever each child’s characteristics are, and work on that.” Instead of trying to extinguish the behaviors, like certain autism therapies do, Pegasus therapists try to identify the triggers of their behavior. Some sensory-seeking children finding chewing as a soothing sensation, so the therapists allow them to use what’s called “chewlery,” which are chew toys attached to necklaces that the children can bite on. Others are hypersensitive and benefit from noise-cancelling headphones, which they allow the children to use as well.
The horses at Pegasus tend to be older horses that have been donated to them and no longer can fulfill the jobs they once held. However, each horse must be resilient to handle these challenged children, as some make loud noises for sensory-seeking reasons. Both the children and horses have a mutually beneficial relationship.
THE VALUE OF EQUINE COMPANIONSHIP
Like those at Green Chimneys, the children who participate in therapy at Pegasus form a wonderful companionship with the horses. Horses don’t require understanding the complex nuances that neurotypical people do. As a result the process of developing social skills for autistic children is vastly easier. The value of equine therapy for autistic children is beyond measure.
For more information on these exceptional programs, go to Pegasus Therapeutic Riding :: Home (pegasustr.org) and Home - Green Chimneys.