For this years World Autism Awareness Week there has been a lot of focus on not seeing autism as a disability or difficulty but as a difference. That those who are given the label Autism are not ‘less able’ than others, just different and accepted and celebrated for those differences.
Labels are something that society is full of. Autism, ADHA, BDP, Bi-Polar, depression, anxiety, disabled, downs syndrome, difficult, damaged, unlovable, cancer patient, survivor, pain sufferer. Some are given to us by professionals. Some we adopt ourselves. Some others give us without us even realising it. These labels can be helpful – they can help to explain why something is harder for us, or why we feel different. They can give you a sense of belonging to a community of people who share your label. They can help others to understand without a long-winded explanation essential information about you. Labels help other professionals get you services that can help, and funding to access those services.
Great – labels exist, some imposed and some adopted, and they can be helpful. Brilliant, but that is a little short for a blog post. Well, as much as labels can do all the above, and for that are sometimes necessary. Labels can be limiting, binding and down right misleading. If you have met a child with Autism, you have met ONE child with autism – the spectrum is huge, and they are still individuals. Your anxiety may present as a seemingly irrational anger because your fuse is shortened by the constant ‘fight or flight’ response, your work colleague’s anxiety presents as an upset stomach. You have the same label, surely you should feel the same things? Of course, there are diagnostic similarities, how could there not be, but the label doesn’t tell the story of who *YOU* are. It merely is a piece of the puzzle.
You are the same, but different.
The beauty of having an Equine Therapist is - they can’t read. They do not have a preconception of you based on a diagnosis, label or even who you were last week. They can only react to the you they see in front of them at that given moment in time. They also have no expectations – they aren’t waiting for you to say or do the right thing.
Children, and adults, with Autism Spectrum Disorder (terms that can and hace been used include autism, autism spectrum disorder (ASD), autism spectrum condition (ASC), atypical autism, classic autism, Kanner autism, pervasive developmental disorder (PDD), high-functioning autism (HFA), Asperger syndrome and pathological demand avoidance (PDA).) experience their challenges in a variety of ways but they can be summarised under the umbrella terms such as difficulty with social communication and interaction and repetitive or restrictive, including sensory, behaviours. These behaviours limit or impair their everyday functioning.
Horses have been used with children and adults with Autism through various programmes, including the Horse Boy programme and therapeutic riding as well as Equine Assisted Therapy all with success. The different techniques are as varied as the spectrum is, but all show one thing. Interaction with these intuitive, social, prey animals has a positive and long-lasting impact on those on the spectrum. They provide guidance in a manner easier to process for the autistic brain, clearer indication on social cues and appropriate behaviours as well as tackling many of the ‘additional’ areas those with ASD struggle with. They can help ease anxiety and ‘stimming’ behaviours developed to cope with these anxieties caused by a sense of ‘otherness’ and the sensory overload the autistic brain can experience.
Working with an animal who does not see the child’s label can be a freeing process for that child. They can step into the moment with an animal whose fight or flight responses are so heightened they are able to help the child begin to recognise, and control, their emotions. It is a common misconception that those on the spectrum do not feel, the contrary is true, often they are unable to filter the feelings and emotions of others as well as understand and process their own. It is not a lack of emotions that defines someone on the spectrum as much as a hyper sensitivity to emotions and a lack of the social and emotional processing skills.
Engaging in learning alongside these animals can help children learn essential life skills, control impulses and help them to regulate and control maladaptive behaviours. Equine Assisted Learning and Activities can help those on the spectrum develop empathy, a common struggle, and find positive coping mechanisms. Whilst the research into the impact of this is still in it’s early stages it is showing that the positive impact of learning alongside horses improves behaviours significantly.
Watching the transformation and blossoming skills of these children is one of the highlights for everyone at Spirit and Soul. We feel privileged to support them to become their best selves in a label free environment. Where they are celebrated for their skills and see as a whole person rather than a label.
We are running Equine Assisted Activity Days over the Easter Holidays which are a fun day using horses to learn new skills and engage in mindfulness exercises. For more information on these and to enquire about our Children’s Services please explore the website www.spiritandsouleaac.co.uk .