Equine Therapy for Children with Asperger's and Autism
Both Asperger's and Autism are sub-categories of a larger disorder category called Pervasive Developmental Disorders. They have similar characteristics, which are milder in Asperger's, and include both verbal and non-verbal communication impairments, hyper-focus on one or two specific areas of interest, clumsiness, and repetitive speech patterns.
Typical treatment programs for Asperger's and 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 Asperger's or autism, but only to control symptoms like hyperactivity or seizures. There's currently no known cure for either disorder.
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 children with autism or Asperger's.
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 child 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 child, rather than "assigning" the child and horse to each other. It's a unique method that has had excellent results. A staff person will lead a child to a horse, and watch for the horse's reaction. If the horse dips his head or nuzzles the child, it's an indication that a bond is being formed and the child 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 child out, stimulating development of his or her verbal communication and interest in other physical objects.
Motor skills are also developed as the child 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 child'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 child's ability to interact socially is often improved as well. The therapy sessions teach the child how to interact with the counselor and staff people. Group sessions allow the child to work and play with other children and counselors, 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 children always have stories to tell of the dramatic improvements they see in the children. Not only are basic communication and motor skills improved, but many children experience improvements in their overall moods. Children 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 children. The playful nature of animals seems to draw autistic children out of their "shells". Children 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 child often becomes more relationally open; again, with the animal first, then with people.