Adolescents Severe Autism

The daily challenges of autism, which can include difficulties with social interactions, limited communication skills, restricted and repetitive patterns of behavior, and narrow interests, can be quite formidable to address. Interactive sessions with specially trained horses can provide a variety of opportunities to practice social skills, non-verbal communication, impulse control, anger management, and problem-solving. Interacting with horses on the ground can build skills in self-awareness, focus, cooperation, timing, boundaries, and empathy.

For adolescents with autism, tasks such as rolling a ball to a horse that will roll it back, playing fetch with a free-roaming horse that will bring tossed items back to you, or feeding a horse grain can be entertaining and also serve as opportunities for learning. Mental health professionals break the tasks down into small, discrete steps that the adolescent can follow, and they repeatedly train those steps in a systematic and precise way.

Additionally, equine-assisted learning is one of the few treatment modalities that offer opportunities to address social deficits in a context which does not require direct interaction with other human beings, particularly neuro-typical peers who sometimes can respond with judgment and condemnation. Instead, sociability problems can be worked on through interactions with horses, who are living, breathing, responsive “beings” that can provide direct and immediate feedback—through their actions—without judgment, bias or criticism.

Moreover, while interacting with horses, those individuals with limited language skills need not be pressured to verbalize extensively, as body language is the primary communication mode for horses. This is adaptive in terms of teaching the individual to focus on the vitally important non-verbal aspects of relationships, which are often overshadowed by too much emphasis on the content and process of “talking” while engaging in social interactions.

In this video clip, adolescents struggling with the challenges of severe non-communicative autism participate in structured activities with specially trained horses that serve as interactive companions and teachers.