One of the most helpful therapies for me by far in my childhood was equine therapy. It allowed me to feel more grounded, develop coordination, and become more comfortable socially. Horses do not demand the same social interaction as humans, they are accepting and can sense your feelings. In many ways they are the perfect partners and teachers for autistic people. The following is a guest post written by Susan Crisp, LPC-E, LRT, EFT. She explains the benefits of equine facilitated therapy specifically for those in the autism spectrum. Thank you to Susan for such an enlightening article, and I encourage anyone to try this type of therapy no matter what age!
Equine Facilitated Therapy
By: Susan Crisp, LPC-E, LRT, EFT
Individuals with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) have many things in common, not the least of which is an amazing ability to perceive their world. The term “processing disorder” is often used to describe this ability. Simply put, it means that some of us hear sounds, see colors, feel things on our skin, and taste in ways that are different from our neurotypical (NT) friends. I once had a friend with Asperger’s (affectionately termed Aspies) say that maintaining eye contact for more than a second or two caused her to hear a high-pitched sound and feel pain in her ears. Because of this enhanced ability, we are often focused on these environmental factors more than on internal factors like thoughts and feelings. And this causes us problems when interacting with NT friends. NT’s want to lock eyes, they want to touch you when they talk, they want to talk about feelings and have ASD/Aspies respond in kind; and when that doesn’t happen, well they don’t like it.
Equine facilitated therapy (EFT) can help. EFT is partnering with horses to provide therapy and treatment. Horses are herd animals. Knowing what the other horses are thinking and what they may do next is essential to staying alive. Horses depend on each other for everything! They make relationships a priority, something that Aspie’s or those with more challenging forms of ASD don’t always do. Horses are also not so concerned with eye contact, and they are OK if you don’t touch them when you interact with them; you don’t really even have to speak. Horses can tell what you are feeling by reading your body language (how you stand, if you fidget, how you are breathing, etc.). And what’s even more helpful, they are able to reflect back to you what you are feeling by the way they act. And an experienced equine facilitated therapist can help you see yourself like they see you. The horses and the therapist can help ASP/Aspies break through barriers of environment, focus and comfort levels to a place where they can have ‘normal’ (whatever that is!) interaction with NT peers.
Interacting with horses during grooming and/or planned ground (NOT riding) activities allows the therapist, the client and the horses to connect with no judgement and no rejection; which helps ASD/Aspies to learn real world applications for social skills building and relationship creation. And because most ASD/Aspies are experiential learners (learn by doing), these interactions often produce results that are internalized and therefore realized at rates that many other therapies cannot replicate. Riding activities can help ASD/Aspies have more confidence and allow for an activity with or without NT peers or friends.
Not to mention that horses come in all sizes, colors and temperaments and they are amazing creatures, much like ASD/Aspies!!
About the Author:
Susan Crisp is a licensed therapist who discovered a mutually beneficial partnership with horses at a young age while attempting to navigate a world in which she was clearly Atypical. Susan created and managed a therapeutic riding center in NC, and has created and managed equine facilitated therapy programs in Tennessee, Georgia, Illinois and Virgina. she is currently a board member for Horse and Hound therapy center in Woodlawn Va. See susancrisp.net for more information.