Hippotherapy and Autism

October 21, 2009

Hippotherapy and Autism /Autism definitions.

FRH sees many clients with Autism or whose diagnoses land on the autism spectrum.

Autism: Neurodevelopmental brain disorder that is characterized by deficits in social interactions and ability to communicate (verbal or nonverbal).

People with autism often have atypical patterns of interest or behavior.  The term “autism” is commonly used as a general term to include several disorders that fall under the category of autism spectrum disorders (ASD) which are sometimes also called pervasive developmental disorders (PDD).
Autism Disorder:  Diagnostic term for severe form of autism, which is a type of autism spectrum disorder.  Autism disorder is on the autism spectrum and is characterized by severe disabilities in language and communication, and severe stereotypical behaviors.

Autism Spectrum Disorder:  Or ASD.  A diagnostic term that includes a range of neurodevelopmental disorders with varying degrees of severity.  ASD’s are marked by difficulty or impaired communication skills and social interactions, and the presence of repetitive or stereotypical behaviors like hand-flapping.  ASDs include Asperger syndrome, Rett Syndrome, Childhood disintegration disorder, and PDD (see above).  The term “autism” is usually used to describe disorders included on the spectrum.

Hippotherapy and Autism:  Clients with autism typically experience deficits in language, sensory processing and reading social cues.  Clients with high-functioning autism, also called Asperger’s Syndrome may be bright, “gifted” and have normal speech development yet struggle with social skills and sensory issues.   Often clients with autism have poor muscle tone (low tone), manifested as poor posture and also limited motor control and coordination.

Being on a horse can address many of these limitations.  The horse’s three-dimensional movement provides sensory stimulation to muscles and joints (called proprioception), impacts the balance and movement sense detected by sensory receptors in the inner ear (called the vestibular system), and provides varied tactile (touch) experiences when the client rubs or pats or hugs the horse, feels the heat from the horse’s body and feels the effects of the natural environment (sun/wind). The therapist can address communication goals by asking the rider to follow simple or multi-step directions.  For example “turn to face backwards and give me a high five”. The client is encouraged to communicate directions to the horse verbally, if possible, or non-verbally through signs, such as “walk on” or “whoa”.   Additionally, there are physical aides which the client can use such as the incorporation of reins for turning and stopping the horse, or a gentle leg squeeze to ask the horse to go.  The client’s trunk musculature is challenged each time the horse steps forward or stops or changes speed.  The rhythm of the horses stride, coupled with the pelvic movement exactly mimics the stride length and pelvic mobility of a walking human.

Clients are taught to relate appropriately to the horse with gentle pats and rubs.  Hitting and high-velocity movements are not tolerated with the horse or the team.  The consequences of inappropriate behaviors are easy to implement.  The horse stops.  Good behavior is rewarded in a variety of ways.  It may include short trots, fun games, or rewards after the session is over such as giving the horse a treat.  Higher functioning clients learn how to engage their team in goal-directed conversations as they move through complex warm up exercises or how to perform advanced positions such as kneeling or standing on the horse. These activities develop memory, strength and coordination, instill self-confidence in the client and they are a lot of fun.

Clients engage differently in a treatment session while astride.  They don’t have the typical “therapeutic” environment.  At FRH, clients arrive happy to work—basically unaware that they are involved in a complex treatment strategy.  And they leave after a session, having come closer to their goals, tired and happy.

Testimonials from parents indicate that they often see improved communication, speech and coordination.  Furthermore, as austistic children discover that they can enjoy a sport that few of their peers can dream of experiencing, they learn that they have special abilities.  Only a horse partner can help them do that!