Thirty years ago, when I first came in contact with a child with autism I thought that some autistic behavior looked horse-like–unbroken horse-like. I grew up in Texas and in high school my life was horses and rodeo. Of course, there are many differences between the misbehavior of horses and the behavior of the child with autism and I’m certainly not an expert on horse behavior by any means. But taking into account the similarities often makes working with these kids easier.
Many unbroken horses and many children with autism will become uneasy and run away or engage in aggressive behavior if you try to approach them head on, move too rapidly, or make too much noise. In order to keep the horse or the child calm you have to approach them from behind or at a forty-five degree angle and move slowly and quietly.
And when you get there you will find that that unbroken horses and children with autism often respond differently to touch. Temple Grandin, who successfully managed her autism and earned a Ph.D. in animal science, says that children with autism, like cattle, respond to a firm touch but find a light touch aversive and pull away. She built a “hug” machine, similar to a squeeze chute for cattle, to calm her down whenever she became anxious. See http://www.grandin.com/inc/intro-squeeze.html
Horses and kids with autism also seem to know by your body language, tone of voice, and touch who can ride/manage them and who they can take advantage of. I wrote Monty Roberts, the man the movie “The Horse Whisperer” was based on. He told me several clinicians had already recognized the similarities between children with autism and horse misbehavior and were applying his horse training techniques in their work with kids with autism. (See montyroberts.com)
For example, if a horse balks and won’t go up a hill or cross a ditch the rider may guide the horse around in a circle several times and then try again. The same behavioral principle applies to the body parts drill we often use with children with autism. Whenever the child with autism is non-compliant– the body parts drill–asking the child to point repeatedly to different areas of his body is used to establish or re-establish compliance. The trainer takes the child’s hand and guides it to different body parts several times while giving a verbal prompt. Once the child is compliant on the body parts drill the trainer returns to what was originally being worked on and the child is usually compliant. If not then It’s back and forth to the body part drill until compliance is established. So non-compliance results in more work–not a time out break and therapy progresses.
Horses and kids with autism also seem to learn better visually. Temple Grandin’s latest book is titled Thinking in Pictures. She says she thinks in pictures and believes the same is true for other people with autism, as well as the cattle she works with. (According to Monty Roberts horses also think in pictures.)
I don’t know any way of proving how kids with autism, cattle, and horses think, but I do know that kids with autism do seem to have more problems processing information in the auditory modality than any other sensory modality. It’s estimated that about half of the kids with autism never develop any functional spoken language. Pronoun confusion and echolalia (repeating what they hear word for word like a parrot) is also common in kids with autism. Using gestures along with verbal prompts is more effective than verbal prompts alone and teaching kids with autism to use sign language or exchange pictures to get what they want often gets them to talking. (The Picture Exchange Communication System (PECS) developed by Lori Frost and Andrew Bondy is often used to teach communication to children with autism who have difficulty signing. Exchanging pictures or signing is more difficult than talking and often, kids with autism, like electricity, follow the path of least resistance.)
I like to sit and watch children with autism for an hour or so before I start working with them –much like a naturalist observing animals in the wild-noting their habits–what they are attracted to–their likes and dislikes. Animal models of human neuropsychological disorders and psychopathology developed in the lab or observed in zoos or the wild have a long history in psychology. Primates in captivity display some autistic like behaviors as do lab animal exposed to certain drugs or behavioral manipulations. Pen and paper psychometric tests and rating scales have taken over most clinical settings and psychologists and psychiatrists are not spending enough time observing kids with autism in their “natural settings” in my view. (Neurologists tend to do a better job of “naturalistic” observation and relating what they see to their advanced imaging technology.) If we are going to work with children with autism and be effective maybe we need to spend some time watching unbroken horses.
Brown, G.: Little Bubba’s Not Ready for Nashville Yet: Case Histories of Kids with Autism and Other Neuropsychological Disorders
Guide to Improving Gastrointestinal Symptoms among Children with Autism Spectrum
Teaching Strategies for Students with Disabilities
Becoming a Special Education Teacher
Help with Behavioral Issues & Learning Life Skills
22 Empowering Life Lessons for Children
Health Issues Specific to Autism
Children with Autism Experience Interrelated Health Issues
A Guide to Keeping Your Children with Autism Safe