The CDC reports that nearly 1 in 88 kids will be diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder. Stories often feature young children who are early in their diagnosis, but what happens as they age? Often times the services available to them become much more limited.
Now there is a program that’s trying to fill that gap, using what might be considered unorthodox techniques.
A trip to Crescent J Ranch in rural Osceola County is like a trip back in time. From the native pine forests to the dense wetlands, it’s a snapshot of Florida before the industrial revolution.
The 4,700 acre ranch boasts thousands of species of native plants and wildlife but few people. It’s not the kind of place you’d expect to find a learning program devoted to helping communication.
But it’s exactly where you’ll find Dr. Sandra Wise. She’s playing the part, wearing riding gear and a Stetson hat that wouldn’t have looked out of place in the early 1900‘s.
On this day Wise, a licensed clinical psychologist and horse trainer, is taking a group of young adults on the autism spectrum for a walk under a cypress canopy. Each student walks carefully as they lead their horses past fallen timber.
It’s therapy disguised as a nature walk. The students are learning to read the animals behavior as they guide them through the forest.
Those on the autism spectrum often have difficulty reading social cues in others. The animals act as a metaphor for people. As the students learn to read the horses, they can apply what they learn to experiences in their lives.
The program is called “Eye of a Horse,” it’s an equine-assisted learning program and it works by removing the verbal component from communication. The students are forced to focus only on the non-verbal cues, seeing things from the horses perspective.
Wise says they have to predict what the horse is thinking based only on body language.
“Persons on the spectrum have difficulty reading the non-verbal language much of the time, so what we are emphasizing here is the communication without the verbal piece because of course horses don’t talk,” she said.
Wise uses semi-wild untrained horses for her therapy, she says they give the most natural reactions.
“We call them big brown barometers,” she says. “They’re reading the student’s behaviors and giving them immediate feedback.”
Some of the other exercises include introducing props into the animals environment and observing their reaction or simply trying to approach the animals by using calm, controlled movements.
A group activity involves building an obstacle course and persuading the horse to maneuver through it.
The therapy shouldn’t be confused with equine therapy that teaches students to ride or groom the animals. The purpose of the exercises are simply to read and react to the non-verbal cues the animals provide.
The students are all from CIP or the College Internship Program in Melbourne. The school provides individualized, postsecondary, academic, internship and independent living experiences for young adults on the autism spectrum.
CIP student advisor Jodi Pierce says she’s seen a big difference in the students since they began the therapy in January.
“When they eventually learned they could change and influence the behavior of an animal that size, it started to help them develop confidence in other areas and in interacting with their peers," she said
Pierce says the animals take a lot of the pressure off learning because they are less intimidating.
“You don’t have to think about what to say, you really don’t have to think too much about the impression that you’re making on the horse except whether or not the horse is accepting you and interested in you,” Pierce said.
The Eye of a Horse learning experience is offered to a wide range of young people and adults. You can get more information at the Eye of a Horse's website.