If you’re in the mood for some deep reading, I have just the thing. As director of communications for Erik’s Ranch & Retreats, I follow news about autism fairly closely. Several weeks ago, in this blog, we focused on the fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, or DSM-V, with the most recent changes, one regarding removing a diagnosis of Asperger syndrome. This change generated a lot of public concern. Then, just the other day, I found this article in the New York Times. It cited Dr. Thomas R. Insel, director of the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH). He said the DSM-V suffers from a scientific lack of validity.

He wasn’t advocating ignoring the DSM-V altogether, because it is what we have. However, he indicated that science needs to go beyond diagnosing symptoms and focus on biology, genetics and neurosciences to get to the cause. As a result, Dr. Insel announced on April 29 that the NIMH has launched the Research Domain Criteria (RDoC) project “to transform diagnosis by incorporating genetics, imaging, cognitive science and other levels of information to lay the foundation for a new classification system,” and subsequently, more effective treatment. The RDoC is not a quick fix. It will take time to change the way research and diagnosis are conducted. But, it was heartening to learn that emerging data will be used instead of relying on static categories. It will also be interesting to watch and see the outcome of this endeavor.

Shortly after reading Dr. Insell’s announcement, I ran across this article in the New Yorker outlining how the RDoC will change the way diagnosis and subsequent treatment will be reoriented. I gleaned that the NIMH has implemented the RDoC project to continue to move research forward as well as the keep in mind the treatment of unique individuals, and I was encouraged. Which brings me to this story about Kevin, whose doctor already treats people, not just symptoms.

My whole point here is to reiterate that individuals with autism are unique and should not be defined by a diagnosis. When you look closely, you will find that extraordinary potential is not being tapped, and that’s a shame. Looking beyond a category and seeing a person will help foment change in perspective and treatment. That’s why the at Erik’s Ranch & Retreats has been not only to serve those on the spectrum, but to advocate on their behalf.


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.

A National Institute for Mental Health press release issued January 15 proclaimed, Study Documents that Some Children Lose Autism Diagnosis. This study, conducted by autism researcher Deborah Fein, PhD, and colleagues at the University of Connecticut, was funded by the National Institutes of Health. It focused on 34 individuals who had been diagnosed with autism at a young age, but moved off the autism spectrum, as they grew older.

“Although the diagnosis of autism is not usually lost over time, the findings suggest that there is a very wide range of possible outcomes,” said NIMH Director Thomas R. Insel, M.D. “For an individual child, the outcome may be knowable only with time and after some years of intervention. Subsequent reports from this study should tell us more about the nature of autism and the role of therapy and other factors in the long term outcome for these children.”

But, in reading the article, I thought to myself “Am I reading this correctly? It suggests that we finally have scientific data to support that children actually do lose their diagnoses, and then goes on to say that “we really don’t know how to do that,” but we should figure it out?

We’ve had data for some time, and a proven method, which shows that children can indeed lose their diagnosis of autism.  In 1987, Ivaar Lovass, PhD, showed through Applied Behavioral Analysis (ABA) that children could recover from autism. Lovass Institute Midwest, in Minneapolis, directed by Eric Larsson, PhD, LP, BCBA, has documented recovery levels of 60 percent for children treated. Impressive and amazing. Yet the scientific community continues in this ongoing and pointless battle of whether ABA is valid. If a cancer treatment had similar data, it would have been implemented across the board decades ago. Recovery means normal social skills and normal IQ. Most of us would give our right arm to have that for our children (even if some symptoms remain), and half of them can achieve those outcomes if provided with the appropriate early intervention. It is what the world needs now, and has needed for years.

In an editorial by Sally Ozonoff, joint editor of Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, said, “Moving the possibility for recovery from autism spectrum disorder (ASD) beyond public discourse and into scientific discourse is critical. No, recovery won’t be possible for everyone. No, recovery is not the only outcome worth fighting for. But it is high time we, as a scientific field, talked seriously about this as a possibility. As recent political events have demonstrated, hope can be a powerful tool. By demonstrating that there is solid science behind hope, we can add fuel to the urgency for very early diagnosis and intensive treatment of ASD.”

Then, I ran across this blog by “There is no such thing as false hope. There is only hope.” on Autism Speaks. I believe the author is spot on with her comments and I have to wonder why are we still dancing around the word recovery? Why not just implement a method that includes early intervention and has such a terrific track record?