The positive effects of equine therapy for children with autism.
HORSING around is helping youngsters with autism to improve in leaps and bounds.
The equine-therapy programme at an inner-city stable block, which sits in the shadow of HM Prison Wormwood Scrubs in west London, is helping autistic children to overcome the issues of social interaction and communication that are so prevalent in the condition.
Volunteers at the Wormwood Scrubs Pony Centre (WSPC)Horsing Around for Autism have seen smiles appear on the most serious of faces and an agitated or distressed child instantly calmed when taking to the back of one of the centre’s horses or ponies.
Though more research needs to be done to assess the true value of equine therapy on children with autism, centre manager Sister Mary-Joy Langdon is in no doubt about the positive effects of her beautiful animals on the autistic children that visit her centre, which started life in 1989 as a patch of grazing land with no electricity, no phone line and three Shetland ponies that had been abandoned when the once booming local rag and bone trade went into decline.
Mary-Joy, who incidentally was Britain’s first female firefighter before becoming a nun and pony-centre manager, said: “We can see that children with autism benefit enormously from coming into contact with our ponies and horses. The transformation is often breathtaking and always completely magical.
“From the simple joy and relaxation of riding, to the enhanced focus the children develop as they pick their way carefully around the riding area, there is a rainbow of positive effects for our young visitors. Everyone knows that animal therapy can work wonders, but to see it in action is simply amazing.”
Often misunderstood and dismissed as naughtiness in children, autism affects at least one per cent of the population according to the National Autistic Society – and it does not simply go away. Autism is an incurable and lifelong developmental disability, with half of those affected having some form of learning disability. It is a spectrum disorder, which means that it affects sufferers in many different ways and at varying levels.
People with autism often struggle with social interaction and communication, and find it difficult to make sense of the world. They often don’t understand social rules, appearing insensitive or inappropriate, or pushing people away as expressing needs and emotions is difficult.
It is hidden in as much that it is a disability that cannot be seen, and it can often lead to bullying for young sufferers and problems throughout adult life. It is thought that autism affects up to five times as many males as females.
While there is no known cure for autism, which was only identified in the middle of the 20th century, interventions can help those with the condition to eradicate some of the behaviours that make autism difficult to live with. Specialised groups and classes can help autistic children and their families, and therapies such as those available with the horses and ponies at WSPC can encourage development in a number of ways.
Among other things, the beautiful beasts can help autistic children to: reduce anxiety through the rhythmic movement of riding; improve focus; stimulate the senses and improve verbal communication; develop social interaction with the volunteers and other children; and increase self-confidence.
Mary-Joy and her team of hard-working volunteers, who rely on donations to fund the £180,000-a-year venture, welcome other children with a variety of physical and mental disabilities. Sponsors can adopt the animals, providing much-needed funds towards their upkeep. Horsing Around for Autism