After running our therapeutic riding program for almost two years, I have become more attuned to the therapeutic quality of the interaction between people and animals. I have enjoyed observing the difference in the youngsters who attend our riding program and was gratified to see this article focusing on how such classes can benefit adults: Therapeutic Riding as a Means of Teaching Job Skills.

More recently, I read about the boost animals give to social interaction in children and how therapy dogs help individuals with autism. The connection between animals and individuals with autism is well-known, and it isn’t limited to children. Adults, too, develop deep bonds with animals—maybe because animals don’t judge. Through unconditional acceptance, I believe that individuals are more apt to connect with others and believe in themselves when an animal is present.

We at Erik’s Ranch & Retreats have seen first-hand the value of partnering animals with individuals with autism. In nearly all instances, therapeutic riding students have had remarkable experiences as the father of Jack, a 12-year-old with autism, describes: “Here is a little slice of life from Jack’s experience. Jack and Bailey [the horse] were trotting around the arena. Jack was posting, and as he stood up in his stirrups, Bailey leaped two feet in the air. She came off the jump into a cantor. A huge smile broke out across Jack’s face, as he thrust his little fists up into the air. I asked Jack how it felt. He said, ‘It felt like flying.’ As his parents, we felt like we’d just jumped over every obstacle we’ve ever had.”

I have spoken with most of our parents, who are always thrilled at the changes our classes bring about in their children. One mother told me that before she enrolled her son in therapeutic riding classes, she’d cringe each time the phone rang. She was sure another group or program couldn’t handle her son and she’d be asked to remove him from the program. But, therapeutic riding had such a positive impact on her son that, she says, she will drive to the ends of the earth to get him to his class.

Another mother has a daughter, Katie, with autism, who is allergic to horses, but the impact on Katie has been so great they work around the allergies. Katie’s mother says, “Riding really triggers her sensory system in a positive way. The motion and movement are so calming and positive. She started out on a Western saddle and gradually shifted to an English saddle as you can really feel the horse better with an English saddle. She’s learned to steer the horse, use verbal commands, play games, and best of all, trot and canter.

 

Katie with Dolly

Katie with Dolly

There are so many creative and innovative ways to help children and adults with autism integrate into a world that misunderstands and sometimes avoids them. It has long been obvious that animals provide a catalyst for people to interact, and I, for one, am thrilled to see these methods being employed as assistance to help integrate individuals with autism.

Tell us about classes or groups that help your loved one with autism. Everyone will benefit from knowing what is available.

Homes—real homes—for adults with autism are in short supply. Group homes don’t quite fill the bill for everyone; living with parents will only work for so long in most instances, living alone in a house doesn’t always work… . What is the solution to provide housing for a population that is growing quickly and subsequently reaching adulthood in large numbers? I ran across an excellent article on the Autism After 16 website that takes a serious look at this question. There isn’t an easy answer, but I think the direction to take is becoming clearer.

With the question of homes and jobs for adults with autism in mind, staff and board members of Erik’s Ranch & Retreats traveled to Bozeman, Mont., at the end of February to gather support and awareness for Erik’s Ranch, our home and work place for adults with autism in Montana. I was grateful to the new people who attended the meetings and for their obvious interest and willingness to learn about autism. With education and awareness comes acceptance. With acceptance will come willingness to interact meaningfully with individuals who have different abilities and who express themselves differently. Ultimately, and I don’t think this is a huge leap, jobs and homes will follow. Real jobs and real homes.

But, as a parent of a child with autism, I also know that in spite of interest and enthusiasm, life has a way of distracting those who don’t have someone with autism in their everyday life. The building of the ranch in Montana and our retreat in Minnesota will help to create an ongoing and visible presence, which fosters more awareness and acceptance.

The reason I once again bring up the topic of homes and jobs for adults with autism in this blog is because of the urgency I feel for my own son and the urgency I hear from other parents. If you have ideas or ways to reach out to each other, please do so. Connection and solidarity will help us to advance our cause naturally and with strength. We are all in this together, and together we can foment change.