Benefits of Interaction with Horses for Autistic Children (ASD)
What is Autism or ASD?
Both autism and ASD (Autism Spectrum Disorder) are now widely used terms for neurobiological developmental disorders that originate in childhood and affect the entire life cycle. It is not uncommon today to know someone whose son or daughter has been diagnosed with one of the variants of autism. Even when imperceptible at first glance to outsiders, in the intimacy of everyday life, it becomes clear to both the family members and the educators who deal with the children. In fact, they are usually the first to detect anomalies in the children's behavior, thereby prompting a medical evaluation and diagnosis of the disease.
Among a variety of symptoms or traits that may draw our attention, we find avoidance of eye contact, learning difficulties, attention deficit, repetitive actions or speech, inexpressivity, lack of interest in age-appropriate activities, isolation, etc.
Little is known about the real causes of autism but the numerous studies conducted on patients with this condition reveal aspects common to many of them that could favour the development of the disease:
- family background
- premature births
- low birth weight
It is interesting to note that more recent research has also concluded that environmental conditions involving pregnancy have as much or more relevance to the neurological development of the fetus than genetic inheritance itself.
Incidence and Trend of ASD or Autism
Although it is difficult to establish definitive figures, and having contrasted data from Europe, Asia and the United States, we speak of between 1% and 2% of the population affected by some type of autism spectrum disorder. This condition is known to be four times more prevalent in males than in females and to affect different racial, ethnic or socioeconomic groups on an equal basis. It appears to be an ailment that is rapidly advancing among the youngest people of this millennium..
We know that stress and anxiety are increasingly present in the world of children, so it is logical to infer that these factors acquire even higher levels in children diagnosed with some type of ASD. This can be partly explained by the difficulties that those affected by this condition may experience in socializing, in expressing themselves, in adapting to pre-established paces, in interpreting the world around them and, in short, in feeling integrated into society.
While not attempting to go into more precise details on a medical level about these pathologies, I would like to share from my experience aspects that I have seen favored in these children by being in contact with horses.
Difference between Therapy and Interaction with Horses for Children
I feel it is very important to make it clear that under no circumstances should we confuse the on the ground work we do with horses for children, with equestrian therapies such as hippotherapy. In this case the patients will be ridden on top of the horse to benefit among other things from the natural movement of the animal directly on its body and in addition, a multidisciplinary team is required to undertake the tasks.
The major difference in this other type of intervention is that the child, instead of being on the horse receiving the effects of what the animal does under the guidance of the therapists, goes on to play an active role in which he has to test his autonomy and where he is going to relate directly to the horse as an equal, resulting in a much wider range of situations in which he can develop and experience himself.
Although the activities with horses for autistic children have common fundamentals with the horse coaching for children or adolescents, since ridding does not take place in any of them, it should be emphasized that they are not governed by the same patterns, nor do their sessions follow the same script. We take into high consideration the different abilities of each individual in order to determine the most interesting aspects to work on.
What's So Special about Horses?
One of the great gifts that horses give to us human beings is that they do not discriminate, they do not presume, they do not make comparisons, they do not judge us and in fact they relate to all people equally. This is a tremendously motivating and intriguing new situation for children whose confidence and self-esteem can be threatened on a daily basis when in their social environment.
One other important issue is time. Something that usually plays against us in our society and put us under constant tension and rush, when being with horses, it slows and mellows down because the challenge of having to achieve something disappears, there is no goal to reach and everything is ruled by what we call "horse time" which makes us stop and delight in every moment, as they do. For these children this may translate into removing from the equation such undermining constants as pressure and frustration.
Furthermore, there are aspects of the horse's nature such as its presence, its heart's natural coherence, its non-verbal language, its evolved limbic system that will favour interaction and communication even with people whose language skills are limited or non-existent. Likewise, the fact of being close to the horse or in physical contact with it and therefore within its electromagnetic field, generally provokes a "contagious" effect of balance and relaxation, causing a decrease in anxiety and often, the release of emotions.
Benefits of Horses for Children with ASD
- Reduces anxiety levels and nervous tension
The horse natural state of physiological coherence, its body temperature and other characteristics of its species help human being to regain a sense of calm and balance. In the case of autistic children, there are studies that support a positive variation in stress hormones after activities with horses.
- Fosters socialization
Having an animal of such importance and presence in front of us provokes curiosity and the desire to relate to it or to establish some kind of contact.
- Enhances self-esteem and self-confidence
By experiencing the cause/effect of their actions directly on the animal and with no help from the adult, in a setting where there is no judgment, questioning, or comparison, the child's freedom to execute is increased.
- Promotes effective communication
The satisfaction that it causes in the child to see the answers of the horse, motivates him to refine his communication tools in order to make himself understood.
- Helps to manage emotions in a healthier way
Horses are great receivers and processors of emotions due to their developed limbic system. The reactions of the animal to the child's emotional variation will most likely cause the child to look for ways to optimize and balance its impulses.
- Imprints values such as responsibility, friendship and respect
When interacting with living beings in their environment, a series of constructive attitudes and values will inevitably be imposed in order not to interfere with their laws and natural balance.
We Tell a Real Case
Once an immigrant friend came to do a session with his only son. Mehdi is a very intelligent 12-year-old boy, he has a good memory and a great capacity to learn. He is also curious by nature and very polite but is almost always serious and struggles to socialize. When he finally does it his way, his behavior usually causes strangeness or rejection. Even though he is surrounded by people, he often tends to isolate himself and play alone in a corner. Mehdi was diagnosed with ASD a couple of years ago, and that was the first time his father heard of the disease.
In the beginning and since Mehdi looked suspicious, scary and sheltered all the time behind his father, I invited them both to enter the track where the horses were and proposed them to start touching them, brushing them, etc. so that the child could become familiar with them and gain confidence. Initially he did not dare to touch the horse and in fact, every time it moved its head or wagged its tail naturally, he would jump or pull away despite seeing that his father kept calm in the face of those same gestures. They continued the tasks with the horse that I had entrusted to both of them, as Mehdi was still reluctant to follow my suggestion of doing it by himself...
As they progressed in the exercises, it became clear that the child was acquiring security. Inside him the curiosity and desire to experience for himself the relationship with the horse were growing. I made his father a signal to abandon the track and leave him alone, and Mehdi continued undeterred.
We stood at the edge of the track watching his movements and excited by the scene: Mehdi was no longer concerned about us, nor was he seeking protection or approval from his father or the other adults. He was beginning to use his intuition and trust it. He would initiate an action, calibrate the result and then keep trying. He was simply absorbed in seeing what he could do with the horse on his own and enjoyed the various responses of the animal. He even allowed himself to stop several times to pet it!
At the end of the session, I asked Mehdi how he had managed to get the horse to accompany him when he walked and to stop when he stopped so easily. To which he replied: "He has earned my trust"... Actually what he wanted to convey using an adult expression was rather the opposite: that he had earned the animal's trust.
En cualquier caso, lo más importante es que Mehdi había experimentado y entendido los efectos de su forma de relacionarse y comunicarse, así como de confiar en sí mismo, y con ello había logrado divertirse y disfrutar de la armonía y la complicidad en la relación con otro ser vivo.
Se podrían mencionar múltiples detalles que evidencian lo positivo de interactuar con caballos en cada caso determinado, pero he elegido lo que me parecía más significativo para elaborar este artículo que espero os haya sido de ayuda y sobre todo haya podido aclarar dudas a los padres y educadores de niños con autismo, en cuanto al trabajo que hacemos con caballos y sus posibles beneficios.
- Children and horses: Equine activities improve life - by Constance Scharff Ph.D.
- What Horses Bring to the Therapeutic Process - by Verywellmind.com