What is Autism? Autism is a disorder that affects the development of the brain, particularly in communication and social interaction, which can develop from 18-24 months for “classic autism.” When a child’s development is normal for the first 2-4 years of its 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 and generally have good communication skills and repetitious behaviors may be much subtler.
Symptoms include difficulty with verbal and non-verbal communication; attention span and concentration; repetitious behavior, such as obsessively rocking, flapping hands, repeating words, or arranging objects; difficulty with social skills and group activities; making and maintaining eye contact; and with basic skills such as dressing, eating, brushing teeth, and bathing.
Benefits of Hippotherapy and Therapeutic Riding
Hippotherapy, is a physical therapy that is provided under a physician’s supervision and usually benefits children, youth, and adults with physical and/or developmental disabilities. Therapeutic Riding has many of the same benefits, but is more of a recreational riding program and does not usually involve a physician’s supervision. Both use the horse’s rhythmic movement, which resembles the natural walking gait of human’s, to achieve specific therapeutic outcomes. Patients ride the horse in different positions, including sitting or lying forward, backward, or sideways; standing up in the stirrups; and riding on the horse without holding on. Hippotherapy is useful for relaxing tight muscles; increasing balance; building muscle strength; sharpening hand/eye coordination; gaining a sense of body-awareness and self-control; self-confidence; improving communication; concentration; socialization; patience; fine motor coordination; and sensory integration.
The movement of the horse stimulates bones, ligaments, and joints; while tilting, rotating, and moving the rider improving core muscle strength, muscle symmetry, balance, posture, flexibility, circulation, coordination, and breathing making it easier to speak. Hippotherapy can greatly improve an autistic child’s sense of their own bodies in space and frequently does not use a saddle, allowing the child to receive sensations from the horse’s movements, making the 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. It also benefits the kids with mental and emotional disabilities 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 is the enjoyment kids get out of it. They don’t even realize they are participating in a therapeutic activity – it’s just a lot of fun!
When first introduced to hippotherapy, autistic children often exhibit types of behavior which can include crying, screaming, tantrums, and avoidance behaviors such as flopping down and becoming limp. However, the behavior almost always stops as soon as the child is on the horse and the horse starts moving. By the second time the child comes for therapy, the initial behavior is usually gone.
Equine therapy gives autistic children an increased self-confidence, awareness of their bodies, and increased contact and interaction with the world around them and develop a fondness for the horses and is then expanded to include teachers, trainers, therapists, and family members.