One of the more recent trends in therapy for kids with autism involves some special "gentle giants". While horses are mostly shown in races or shows, they can also be great service animals used in animal therapy. When it comes to children and adults with autism, they are gentle giants who help develop riders’ skills while providing a calming environment.
The National Center for Equine Facilitated Therapy says that the unique relationship between a horse and a child who has social, emotional or learning challenges gives the rider more confidence and greater self-esteem. For children with autism, a disorder in which parts of the brain fail to work together, communicating with and relating to others is often difficult. Horses, however, provide a great therapy resource because they allow the riders to develop better communication and sensory skills. Riders can participate in small groups or have individual lessons supervised by certified therapeutic riding instructors. This therapy is called equine therapy or equine-facilitated therapy.
For several reasons, horses work especially well with children and adults with autism. For one, a horse’s natural gait is very calming to their riders. As anyone who has ever ridden a horse knows, when horses walk, they create a rocking motion. This motion calms the riders.
Also, horses are smart. Though they are independent animals who can lead themselves, they respond to children with autism as they direct them around a trail or field. So, while atop a calm, steady animal, the child learns to develop focusing skills. Also, as horses respond when their riders give direction and speak to them, the riders’ communication skills improve, too. This leads to further benefits to the child, and the horses actually help improve children’s social skills as well.
In addition to the beauty of horses, rides also respond to the many different textures on a horse. A horse offers a range of textures for a variety of children. This is important for many children with autism, because some are very sensitive to textures, and others are not at all sensitive. The noses are soft and velvety; their tails are coarse and long; and the coat is soft and bristle-like. As riders with autism stroke and pet a horse, this action helps them develop greater comfort with their sense of touch. Also, horses require brushing and grooming, which gives riders other opportunities to engage with the animal while developing their own tactile senses.
In general, children with autism can have problems with movement, sensing where their body is in space, coordination, touch and communication. It’s amazing to imagine that an animal so much larger than them can offer them assistance—and enjoyment—in these many areas!
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