Autism and equine therapy: “The horses, they just know”

(In this most recent post in our series of guest posts by anthropologists studying autism, it’s a pleasure to have Roslyn Malcolm. Roslyn is a doctoral researcher in at the University of Edinburgh, where she also studied Medical Anthropology at Masters level. She has a background in anthropology and psychology at undergraduate level and has also worked in the equine therapy field for a number of years. This is where her interest in autism began. Her PhD project focuses on the use of equine therapy as a treatment for autistic children and adults.)

 

A horse trainer once said to me, ‘Animals don’t think, they just make associations’. I responded to that by saying, ‘If making associations is not thinking, then I would have to conclude that I do not think.’ (Grandin, 1997: 141).

My entry into the study of autism came with an impromptu visit from the mother of an autistic child in 2010. In the office of a riding therapy centre in Scotland, where I had by then worked for three years, my colleagues and I were thanked profusely. She explained that her son had begun talking for the first time after coming riding. She told us, “he says ‘I love you’ now”. I was grabbed by the story of this mother and child. It was not the first time we had encountered these results. As the number of children with autism accessing the centre rose, so did these reports. As an anthropologist, I wanted to learn more.  How could a horse make an autistic child or adult, popularly defined by empathic and intersubjective deficits, talk?

During exploratory research I talked with parents, therapy practitioners, and teachers. A teacher told me about Joe. “When he was on the horse he would actually talk! In sentences! He would sit up, hold the reins. Amazing, just totally amazing! … He would only do that at horse riding… But there are lots of kids like that, that do things at horse riding that they don’t do at school…it just opens up their world”.

The children began to use social behaviours with the horse – patting, stroking, laughing. These were seen as expressions of empathy. Over the period of sessions (each child attended for at least three months) these expressions would gradually extend to other people in the riding arena, the other children, helpers, teachers and practitioners as the child began to use eye contact, touch, smiling, and ultimately, some began to use words. As one of the instructors Laura said, “over time they start to talk to the leaders or the helpers… they learn how to communicate.” In the equine therapy context, then, horses appear to facilitate a communicative network that allows autistic riders to engage in intersubjective and communicative behaviours, many for the first time.

Laura told me of a child who had surprised his family by talking at the Centre. “The carers that had been bringing him didn’t know that he didn’t talk at home. And it wasn’t until the teachers got together with the parents and told them, ‘he tells his horse to walk on and he says thank you at the end of the lesson’ that they knew their child could talk.  His parents came into the Centre and his mother was in tears. It was at the end of class and the instructor said ‘everyone say thank you to your helpers’. The boy turned, looked his helper in the eye and said thank you.  His mum burst into tears because she had never heard him talking to somebody before”. The parents then encouraged him to speak at home as much as possible.

Over the weeks and months of sessions, incremental benefits are built upon, extending out from initial patting of horses, to communicating with the people in sessions, and further again, to home life, helping autistic riders to “open up”. The children entered into what Olga Solomon calls an ‘ontological choreography’, similar to – yet different from – the one described in her study of therapy dogs and autism (2010 cf Cussins, 1996). I asked about how the horses in particular helped the children and adults. After being told “well, you can’t ride a dog!” one practitioner continued, “I don’t know that you could explain it… the horses, they just know”. This latter phrase continues to emerge as I talk with horse people, and leads me to ask a second question: How can a horse know?

Exploring my own experience of riding gave some insight as to how to begin answering these two entangled questions. For me, when riding all else just slips away, every part of my embodied attention acutely focused on reaching this communicative clarity with the horse underneath me. Relaxed, yet intent on the next movement I ask of the animal, as soon as I think it, the horse knows, picking up on the slightest of shifts in my weight in the saddle, even a tensing of my muscles as I prepare to ask for a change in pace.

These infinitesimal gestures in body language need be clear so as not to confuse the horse. So too do my thoughts: without this clarity the whole thing disintegrates from a pure, fluid flow of thought, body and movement to an uncomfortable, frustrating dis-coordination of two heads, two hands, six legs and one seat. This equine ‘knowing’ referred to is highly embodied. And it is one shared by rider and horse, enacted in practice, in the bodily engagements of riding.

This embodied knowing and empathy flowing between rider and horse may give an insight into how Grandin understands her own mode of empathising. Grandin notes in the opening quote above that her thinking is not abstract but grounded in “just making associations” between concrete experiences. Grandin similarly notes that her mode of empathising is highly concrete, sensorial and embodied: “[I] empathise through senses rather than in a more emotional abstract manner” (2011: 170). So to the seasoned rider, a horse can know, if knowing includes a bodily form of knowledge. Indeed importantly, as Grandin herself notes, if animals cannot know, and indeed think in concrete bodily ways, then neither can she.

Unless you spend a significant amount of time riding, the beauty of these embodied moments of flow are not revealed. Not wanting to import my positive experience of riding to autistic riders in general I researched autistic blogs noting horse riding or equine therapy for reports from writers. This also reflects a deep conviction that the voice of autistic people must always remain a focus in our study of autism.

Grandin notes that horse riding was “joyous” for her (Grandin, 2005: 6). ‘Aspie’, Liane Holiday Willey emphasises that when riding she enters into a “joint comfort zone” with her horse: “the hours I spent teaching my body to mould to my horse, were priceless and precious pieces of my move toward what I call my bilingual world – half Aspie, half neurotypical… On a horse, I am free. My body forgets there is still a tightness that sits in my muscles… On a horse I can forget my baggage and turn my trust over to the animal beneath me and truly, together, we work out what each of us needs to find that joint comfort zone of relaxed beast and relaxed human” (Willey, 2014).

Indeed, that this is a joint process, where both human and horse are active in the process is echoed by Grandin: “a good rider and his horse are a team. It’s not a one-way relationship, either: it’s not just the human relating to the horse and telling him what to do. Horses are super sensitive to their riders’ needs without being asked … That’s why learning to ride a horse is completely different from learning to ride a bicycle” (2005: 6, italics added). The horse then, does not simply operate like a passive object such as a bicycle. It responds, working with the needs of the child or adult to achieve an attunement.

To explore the phenomenon further and in more depth, I plan on undertaking 12 months of observant participation across a range of sites across the UK. As an experienced equestrian, and having worked within these spaces, an awareness of the human-horse attunement will provide a level of access for me into the experience of my informants (i.e., autistic riders, therapy practitioners, volunteers, and parents and carers). The research will explore reports of the efficacy of equine therapy and the facilitated communication suggested by the exploratory research already carried out.

If you are autistic, or have an autistic child and have had experience of using equine therapy to help, please do get in touch @ rmalcolm- at-exseed.ed.ac.uk

*This doctoral project is gratefully funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC).

References

Cussins, C. (1996). Ontological Choreography: Agency through Objectification in Infertility Clinics. Social Studies of Science, 26(3), 575-610.

Grandin, T. (1997). Thinking the Way Animals Do: Unique insights from a person with a singular understanding. Western Horseman, 1997 (Nov), 140-145.

Grandin, T. & Scariano, M.M. ([1986] 2005). Emergence, Labelled Autistic:  A True Story.  New York & Boston: Warner Books.

Grandin, T. (2005). Animals in Translation: Using the Mysteries of Autism to Decode Animal Behaviour. London: Bloomsbury Publishing.

Grandin, T. (2011). The Way I See It: A Personal Look at Autism & Asperger’s. Arlington: Future Horizons.

Solomon, O. (2010a). What a Dog Can Do: Children with Autism and Therapy Dogs in Social Interaction. Ethos, 38(1), 143 – 166.

Willey, L.H. (2014). Horse Therapy. [online]. Sourced on 13.10.14 from http://www.aspie.com/blog/category/horsetherapy.

 

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Conceptualizing autism around the globe: A special issue of Culture, Medicine & Psychiatry showcasing the anthropology of autism

(In this new guest post, it’s a pleasure to have M. Ariel Cascio. Ariel is an anthropologist specializing in the cultural study of science and biomedicine, psychological anthropology, and the anthropology of youth. She recently received her Ph.D. in Anthropology from Case Western Reserve University after finishing her dissertation in Italian autism services entitled “Biopolitics and Subjectivity: The Case of Autism Spectrum Conditions in Italy.” She can be reached at ariel.cascio@case.edu. Her blog, written in Italian and English, can be viewed at https://arielcascio.wordpress.com/).

The anthropology of autism has been emerging, has emerged, and is here. It is demonstrated by Ben Belek, the autism anthropologist. It is demonstrated by conference panels, special issues, and edited volumes on autism and anthropology. My work as an anthropologist studying autism focuses primarily on biopolitics, identity, and subjectivity. I have studied autism in both the United States and Italy, with my dissertation research emerging from an 11 month ethnographic study of autism-specific services for adolescents and adults on the spectrum. Today, I am invited to talk to you about a recent project, a special issue of Culture, Medicine & Psychiatry which was published in June and of which I am the special editor. This volume includes six articles investigating the autism concept in Brazil, India, Italy, and the United States. This issue has been discussed elsewhere (http://culturemedicinepsychiatry.com/2015/05/06/june-2015-issue-preview-interview-with-guest-editor-m-ariel-cascio/) but for theautismanthropologist, I really want to highlight the ways neurodiversity emerges in these articles, which I will address in the order they appear in the special issue. The strength of this theme is particularly notable as the special issue was not designed around the concept of neurodiversity, yet all of the authors incorporated an explicit discussion of neurodiversity or an implicit discussion of neurodiverse themes.

 

The changing face of autism in Brazil

Clarice Rios, Barbara Costa Andrada

Rios and Costa Andrada discuss two contrasting approaches to autism in Brazilian politics: that of Psychiatric Reform professionals who define autism as a form of ‘mental suffering,’ and that of parent activists who define autism as a disability. The authors explore in depth the Brazilian context, unpacking how this conflict cannot be reduced to social/medical models of disability. Regarding parent activists, the authors write that their efforts:

“certainly represented a political maneuver to gain visibility and support to their cause, it also exposed them to rather progressive ideas from the field of disability activism such as neurodiversity. Thus, autism-as-disability cannot be simply reduced to a medicalized and biologized way of conceiving autism, but instead becomes a catalyst to struggles for recognition, rights, and justice.” (p. 230)

This article provides a detailed look into autism politics and the impact of neurodiverse philosophy in Brazil and furthers disability studies theory.

 

Rigid Therapies, Rigid Minds: Italian Professionals’ Perspectives on Autism Interventions

M. Ariel Cascio

My own article looks at conceptualizations of autism within several autism intervention programs discussed by Italian professionals, particularly the concept of rigidity as a characteristic of both people with autism and professionals who work with them. I suggest that this shared metaphor of rigidity may help bridge a gap between autistic and neurotypical minds following a perspective of neurological diversity:

“I similarly propose that the semantic link of rigid therapies with rigid minds may also help practitioners work. By discussing rigidity as both a characteristic of many people with autism and a potential pitfall—that is, characteristic—of their work, practitioners may be consciously or unconsciously bridging the gap between themselves and the people with autism with whom they work.” (p. 250)

This article provides an in-depth look at professional discourse about autism and considers neurodiversity themes.

 

Custodial Homes, Therapeutic Homes, and Parental Acceptance: Parental Experiences of Autism in Kerala, India and Atlanta, GA USA

Jennifer C. Sarrett

Sarrett compares homes in the United States and homes in India, loosely classifying them as therapeutic and custodial respectively depending on the ways the homes are organized with respect to the child with autism within them. Sarrett compares levels of parental acceptance of autism in these two types of environments, and suggests exposure to neurodiversity perspectives as a way to foster parent acceptance. Regarding therapeutic homes focused on autism interventions, she writes:

“Engaging in these strategies is not incompatible with accepting autism. On the contrary, neurodiversity and autism acceptance can be useful in treatment decision-making processes and reduce the utilization of unfounded and dangerous “cures”.” (p. 272)

This article explores how parents in different contexts can mobilize neurodiversity ideas while caring for their children.

 

Parenting a Child with Autism in India: Narratives Before and After a Parent–Child Intervention Program

Rachel S. Brezis, Thomas S. Weisner, Tamara C. Daley, Nidhi Singhal, Merry Barua, and Shreya P. Chollera

Brezis and colleagues, also working in India, analyze parent narratives to understand their conceptualizations of their children with autism and their relationships with them before and after a parent training program. Brezis and colleagues report on this very narrative of parental acceptance and the lack of a reliance on a notion of “normal” after a parent training program. Regarding the program, the authors explain:

“Rooted in the particular challenges of Indian families and societies, AFA’s [Action for Autism] visions are closely informed by global autism movements, including parental advocacy groups and the neurodiversity movements.” (p. 279)

This article explores the impact of this program, and its neurodiversity messages, on the ways parents describe their children in speech narratives and on the impact this might have on parental acceptance and goal-setting for their children.

 

Making Meaningful Worlds: Role-Playing Subcultures and the Autism Spectrum

Elizabeth Fein

Of all the articles in this special issues, Fein’s focuses most explicitly on neurodiversity. Specifically, she explores neurodiversity in practice through a rich ethnographic account of a roleplaying camp for youth with autism in the United States. She explains:

“This paper thus seeks to explore not only the ways in which subcultural communities shape the meanings of neurodiversity, but also the way that neurodiversity shapes culture. Patterned neurocognitive variations, including but not limited to those seen in clinical conditions such as autism, help to organize practices and social orientations into familiar sets. Some of these will become deeply meaningful to participants, providing opportunities for healing and social integration.” (p. 301)

This article provides a rich ethnographic account of a particle autism space in the United States while furthering anthropological theory.

 

“But-He’ll Fall!”: Children with Autism, Interspecies Intersubjectivity, and the Problem of ‘Being Social’

Olga Solomon

Solomon presents detailed transcripts of therapeutic encounters with and without the presence of therapy dogs, arguing that “being with” these animals creates a different intersubjective environment and therefore different opportunities for sociality than human-only contexts. Although Solomon does not explicitly discuss neurodiversity, she like Fein challenges the deficit perspective of autism. Solomon’s discussion of human-animal interaction broadens the concept of intersubjectivity, which people with autism are often said to lack, and suggesting that the context may greatly impact how much a child with autism “is” intersubjective and social. Solomon writes:

“Given the limitations that ASD is thought to impose on sociality, it is important to understand how children’s interactions with companion animals afford intersubjective experiences that humans-only interactional substrates may not.” (p. 337)

This article provides a rich exploration of therapeutic contexts using animals while furthering anthropological theory.

 

In short, this collection will be of interest to anthropologists and to anyone interested in autism through its contribution to theory, its rich description of a wide variety of contexts, and its discussion of neurodiverse themes. The special issue, including these articles, my introduction, and commentaries by R. Richard Grinker and Pamela Block, can be accessed at http://link.springer.com/journal/11013/39/2/page/1. More information on my own research can be found at arielcascio.wordpress.com (in Italian, but can easily be translated to English with your favorite web translator).

 

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