Animal Therapy for Kids with Autism

Apr 12, 2018

As part of our recognition of National Autism Awareness Month, all during April WMRA is examining the spectrum disorder and the people affected by it.  Today we explore how animal therapy, specifically using horses and dogs, can help kids with autism.  WMRA’s Jessie Knadler reports.

Brady is 13 years old and has autism. Unlike some kids on the spectrum, Brady is a thrill seeker. He loves the water. Loves rollercoasters. Perusing the aisles at a loud and crowded box store? Not a problem. It’s also extremely difficult for Brady to communicate. He tends to echo speech repeatedly.

[fade up echolalia]

But this hasn’t stopped Brady from riding horses since before kindergarten.  

He’s involved in the therapeutic riding program at Ride with Pride, a horse facility in Augusta County. Tonight he mounts a Welsh/Clydesdale cross named Maggie from an elevated ramp. He’s supported by his instructor Alex Walden. Four handlers surround Maggie from the ground.

ALEX WALDEN:  Okay, Brady, now remember, really loud: ‘Walk on.’ ‘Walk on.’ ‘Walk on.’

BRADY:  Walk on.

WALDEN:  Nice. Awesome.

It is a huge deal for Brady to be able to receive and give direction, particularly from on top of a horse. And that, in a nutshell, is why his mom Alisa enrolled him in Ride with Pride. It has given Brady a voice. When he first started the program, he would barely look at the horses. Now he literally takes the reigns. Instructor Alex Walden:

WALDEN: He did his first horse show, which was a big deal. He actually went through the different tasks and he won ribbons. His mom was so proud of him and I was so proud of him.

Horsemanship for people with autism can defy expectations.  Program director Kelsey Lasher:

KELSEY LASHER:  I think people tend to label when somebody has autism but the reality is they’re an individual person and they all communicate differently. They all interpret things differently.   So we’ve got to teach them and work with them differently just like we would other human beings as well, so they’re not labeled by their disability.

And Maggie? She’s pretty much Zen: careful, calm. But she’s still a horse. In the middle of Brady’s ride, she paused to shake her head.

BRADY:  [screams, nervous laughter] Faster, faster, faster!

His mom says it was one of the first times she’s ever heard Brady use the word ‘faster.’

[fade down]

[fade up Jessica and Sam Neal and their service dog, Forest]

Dogs are also another widely used form of therapy for people on the spectrum.

Take Sam in Charlottesville. Sam is nine* years old. He loves math, trucks and tractors. He’s also prone to anxiety and, unlike Brady, he prefers to stay home where things are safe and predictable. About a year ago, his family got a service dog: a big, calm black lab named Forest.

JESSICA NEAL:   Aww, is his tail wagging you?

That’s Sam’s mom Jessica Neal.

JESSICA:  Whose dog is that?

SAM:    Sam’s.

JESSICA:  Does he make you calm?

SAM:  Yes.

JESSICA:  When does he make you calm?

SAM:  Crying.

JESSICA:  When you’re crying? 

Forest has a way of dialing in on Sam’s anxiety. He was dialed into Sam even before he really met him.

Jessica recounts the very first night they brought Forest home. Forest hadn’t really been introduced to the three brothers. Sam is the only one with autism. Yet Forest was able to sense which bedroom Sam slept in. Sam likes to sleep with his bedroom door closed.

JESSICA:  Forest walked down the hallway to sit outside of Sam’s room and started whining a little bit. I was kind of like, okay. So I just opened Sam’s door and he kind of poked his head in there and just looked and he just wanted the door to be open. He didn’t do that with any of the other kids. He just somehow knew that was his person right away, immediately, the very first day that they met. 

Jessica attributes this intuitiveness not only to careful training but breeding. It costs approximately $40,000 over two years to raise, train and place a successful service dog, according to Service Dogs of Virginia, where Forest came from. They receive enough funding that they’re able to provide service dogs at no cost to those in need.

JESSICA:  I feel like we won the lottery.

Jessica says Forest now knows Sam so well he’s able to sense when Sam’s about to get upset sometimes before even she does. Forest will toddle over to Sam’s side for a deep pet or even lay down so Sam can use his body like a giant pillow.

JESSICA:  And you can just see — it’s amazing. Sam’s whole body will just kind of melt.

It’s still unclear exactly why animal therapy seems to work for autism. Little scientific research has been conducted, according to the Autism Society of America. They say its effectiveness has to be evaluated individually. If it seems to work, go with it.

For Jessica, the ‘Forest effect’ … has changed her entire family.

JESSICA:  I am more calm as his mom, his brothers are more calm. We’re all more relaxed.

It’s meant that Sam is now able to join his brothers in activities that would have been unthinkable a few years ago.  He even went Trick-or-Treating last October … with his furry buddy tethered to his side.

*The original version of this story said Sam is 11.  He's nine.