Autism is a developmental disorder that affects the development of the brain, particularly in the areas of communication and social interaction. Symptoms can develop from 18-24 months for “classic autism.” When a child’s development is normal for the first 2-4 years of their life, and then develops symptoms, it’s referred to as Childhood Developmental Disorder. Asperger’s Syndrome is a milder form of autism involving significantly less developmental challenges. People with Asperger’s generally have good communication skills and repetitious behaviors may be much subtler.
- difficulty with communication, both verbal and non-verbal
- difficulty with attention span and concentration
- repetitious behavior, such as obsessively rocking, flapping hands, repeating words, or arranging objects
- difficulty with social skills and group activities
- difficulty making and maintaining eye contact
- difficulty with basic skills such as dressing, eating, brushing teeth, and bathing
While the cause of Autism is still unknown, it is generally thought to happen due to abnormalities in the brain’s structure or shape. People with autism have a wide range of symptoms, so the condition is referred to as a “spectrum’ disorder, involving a group of disorders with a range of similar symptoms.
Hippotherapy and Therapeutic Riding
Hippotherapy, which derives from the Greek word “hippo” for horse, is a physical therapy that is provided under a physician’s supervision. It is usually used as part of a comprehensive therapeutic package. This type of program has benefits for children, youth, and adults that have physical and/or developmental disabilities. Therapeutic Riding has many of the same benefits, but it is more of a recreational riding program for the disabled and does not usually involve a physician’s supervision.
Hippotherapy and Therapeutic Riding use the horse’s multidimensional rhythmic movement, which resembles the natural walking gait of human’s, to achieve specific therapeutic outcomes. Therapists help patients ride the horse in different positions, including sitting or laying forward, backward, or sideways; standing up in the stirrups; and riding on the horse without holding on. Specially trained physical therapists, occupational therapists, and speech-language therapists use this therapy with autistic children and teenagers and kids with a wide range of other types of disabilities.
Hippotherapy is useful for:
- relaxing tight muscles
- increasing balance
- building muscle strength
- sharpening hand/eye coordination
- gaining a sense of body-awareness
- gaining a sense of self-control
- gaining a sense of self-confidence
- improving communication
- improving concentration
- improving socialization
- improving patience
- improving fine motor coordination
- improving sensory integration
The movement of the horse moves the rider’s pelvis in the correct way, while also stimulating other bones, ligaments, and joints. A horse moves a person in more than one way, by tilting, rotating, and moving the rider, which would take a whole session of difficult physical therapy exercises to achieve. Sitting on a horse improves core muscle strength, muscle symmetry, balance, posture, flexibility, circulation, coordination, and breathing (which also makes it easier to speak). The autistic are unable to integrate their senses and understanding of how their bodies relate to external forces and surfaces; hippotherapy can greatly improve an autistic child’s sense of their own bodies in space. Hippotherapy frequently does not use a saddle, allowing the child to receive sensations from the horse’s movements, which makes a child aware of where parts of his or her body are in relation to the horse.
The excitement of riding encourages speech when the rider wants to communicate with the therapist and the horse. Non-verbal autistic children have suddenly started talking when they use the horse’s name or ask the horse to get moving! The therapy provides a solid yet enjoyable period of time for stimulation and exercise.
The benefits experienced by kids with mental and emotional disabilities are also due to the special relationship they develop with the horse. The horses are specifically chosen and trained to be gentle, patient, and calm. The unconditional, non-judgmental aspect of the bond between the horse and the patient encourages the child to form an attachment and interaction with another living being, which is especially difficult for autistic kids to achieve. One of the greatest benefits of this type of therapy is the enjoyment kids get out of it. They don’t even realize that they are participating in a therapeutic activity – it’s just a lot of fun!
It should be noted, however, that the first time autistic children are introduced to hippotherapy, they often exhibit the type of behavior that often accompanies changes in their physical environment. This can include crying, screaming, having tantrums, and avoidance behaviors such as flopping down and becoming limp. The behavior almost always stops as soon as the child is on the horse and the horse starts moving, and the initial behavior is usually gone by the second time the child comes for therapy. The tantrums may be repeated every time there is some change, such as when the horse stops walking, but when the child is taught the noise or motion to get the horse to move again, the behavior stops.
Equine therapy gives autistic children a sense of themselves, their bodies, and increased contact and interaction with the surrounding world. The kids’ self-confidence is greatly increased and they form a sense of competence by learning how to interact and work with their horse. These children quickly form attachments and relationships with the horse they ride, and this behavior is then expanded to include teachers, trainers, therapists, and family members.