Working with autism on the farm

Many of the participants at Hidden Acres are on the autism spectrum. Each comes to us with unique gifts and abilities. While each person with ASD experiences the world differently, sensory processing issues and communication challenges are common obstacles. Specifically, the rider may have different degrees of difficulty experiencing one or more sensations: visual, auditory, olfactory (smell), gustatory (taste), and tactile (touch).  They may also experience difficulty processing input from their vestibular system (related to balance) and in proprioception (knowing where the body is in space). As instructors, we work closely with the parents of participants with ASD to create an experience that is sensory enriching, safe and supportive. The therapy horse is our partner in addressing sensory processing and communication challenges. It is not uncommon for our riders with ASD to have real breakthroughs while riding or even grooming a horse.

Interacting with a horse engages all the senses. While a face to face interaction with a person can be overwhelming to a rider with ASD, interacting with a horse is a completely different matter. The horse does not ask anything of the rider. Being close to a horse offers many opportunities for the rider with ASD to engage, but the horse in no way pressures them to do anything. As instructors and horse people, we like to say that horses “meet you where you are,” and nowhere is this more apparent than when a rider with ASD meets a therapy horse.

As a therapeutic riding instructor, I have observed that our therapy horses become quietly curious around people with ASD, especially with riders who have communication challenges. Horses do not process language, but they do understand the subtleties of nonverbal communication.  Some riders with ASD will gaze into the eyes of a horse but avoid eye contact with people. The fact that the horse’s eyes are on the side of their heads alleviates the need to face the horse directly in order to look at it. As the relationship evolves, the horse is seen as non-threatening. Often riders connect with the horse in ways they cannot with people.

Riding a horse is a unique method of sensory stimulation. The feedback from the rocking movement of the horse is quite remarkable in its ability to stimulate the vestibular and proprioceptive senses. Riding a horse moves the body bilaterally in three directions across three planes of movement (frontal, sagittal and transverse). This complex movement helps organize and integrate sensory input in the brain. The horse can offer a variety of input based on its gait, tempo and rhythm. It is not unusual for a rider who normally has a high level of movement and energy in their body to become calmer on the horse. Similarly, riders with low tone who appear distant and lethargic may come alive when riding a horse at a trot. Many parents are happily surprised by the change they notice when a rider who arrived at the barn highly agitated after having a difficult day finishes the lesson with calm energy.

The farm is uniquely suited to serve our participants on the autism spectrum. Our trails provide a deep sensory experience that sets our therapeutic riding and wellness programs apart. Being surrounded by nature provides ample opportunity for sensory processing. Something as simple as the changes in sunlight and shadow filtering through the trees can provide a rich tapestry of visual input. Tactile sensory input can come in the form of a leaf or pinecone handed to the rider, as can the feel of the breeze. The sensation of going up and down hills engages the vestibular and proprioceptive senses, improving balance and strengthening core muscles. The sound of the stream running or a horse’s hooves crossing a wooden bridge stimulates the auditory system.

In my experience, I am best able to reach ASD students when they are riding in nature. Over time, remarkable change can occur. Riders with communication issues may start using words (for example, “trot”, “walk on” or their horse’s name) instead of simply vocalizing with sounds.  Posture improves. Riders find rhythm and explore degrees of touch as they pat the horse in time with his footsteps. An example of such a change came from one of my young riders who had difficulty processing touch. She was often overstimulated while riding and could sometimes be rough with her hands. Anything we handed her was thrown away or put in her mouth. She often needed to be redirected when patting the horse or interacting with me or her volunteers. Occasionally, she would try to grab a volunteer who was sidewalking with her. One afternoon, as we were riding back to the barn, she surprised all of us by reaching out and softly stroking the volunteer’s hair. When she dismounted, she did not struggle to pull off her helmet and run to her mother as she usually did. Instead, she walked quietly to her horse’s face. With the gentlest touch, she stroked his muzzle and whiskers and lowered her face to look at him as he bent his head down to get closer to her. He gave her a good sniff and blew out a big sigh. She left the lesson with a quiet smile. It was a powerful moment for all of us, including her mother. She told me she had never seen this kind of gentle touch from her daughter before.

There is tremendous value in trail work. In this case, my rider was able to explore different degrees of touch while riding her horse in nature. Her horse moved reliably beneath her and was completely tolerant of her movements, which were not predictable. The result was an interaction between horse and rider in which the rider processed information about touch and was able to respond appropriately.

Steeped in nature, the farm offers a deep sensory experience for everyone. As our group wellness programming expands it is our hope that the benefits of being immersed in the natural beauty of the farm will reach a wider audience.

If you have questions about the benefits of therapeutic riding for individuals on the autism spectrum, or are interested in learning more about group wellness programs at the farm, please contact our clinical director, Rebecca Caruso at [email protected].

-Amy Coulter, CTRI