Healing power of animals: Program builds social skills, self-confidenceConnecting with nature can improve lives of people with autism and other disabilities
By: Pamela Knudson, Grand Forks Herald
Savannah Dale, 14, of Crookston, quietly strokes the sides of a brown horse.
“Make circles, Savannah,” says Eliesha Owens. “That’s right.”
The scene may look ordinary, but the children grooming horses on Dan and Irene Bertils’ farm east of Crookston are taking part in “animal-assisted therapy” for people who have disabilities and mental illness.
Owens operates Sun, Country & You, a nonprofit intervention program that offers experiences with animals and nature that build social skills, self-confidence and teamwork.
She said activities like this create a bond between human and horse that’s beneficial for her clients, most of whom have been diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder.
Parents use the terms “fantastic” and “a surprise” about the progress they’ve seen in their children with autism.
Creating a bond
Amanda Frank, Owens’ assistant and mental health practitioner, said brushing is a way to get the children used to horses, especially those who’ve never seen one.
“The best way to bond with horses is to groom them,” said Frank, who recently earned a master’s degree in counseling at UND and wants to start her own equine therapy practice.
“Grooming relaxes the horses and calms them.”
It has a similar effect on Savannah who has been diagnosed with autism — specifically, pervasive developmental disorder — and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).
“This is about as calm as she gets,” said David Dale, watching his daughter from a distance. “It’s hard for her to focus. She does really well here.”
Every summer, he and a caseworker at Polk County Social Services look for activities to keep Savannah busy in a structured environment, he said. “You can never find enough for her to do.”
Having a child with these disorders is “very stressful,” Dale said. “It’s devastating on the household... She’s 14, but she has the mentality of a 6 year old.”
Savannah loves animals and nature, he said. These classes “give her a chance to learn about them in a safe way, a controlled way.”
This is her second summer in the program.
In the past, “she was hard on pets,” Dale said. She didn’t understand how to handle them properly.
“The hardest thing for most of these kids is how to interact with animals. Out here, she’s learned how important self control is.”
Now, she’s better with animals, he said. “That’s a surprise.”
He also credits the farm setting for progress he’s seen in Savannah.
“It’s easier to focus when you don’t have so many people coming and going,” he said, like in town.
Heart of therapy
Animal-assisted therapy is not generally understood, said Irene Bertils whose daughter, Kelly, 14, has Asperger’s syndrome, a type of autism. “People think it’s just playing with horses, but that’s not it at all.”
The effect on people, as they interact with animals, is the heart of the therapy.
Horses are very reactive, she said. They “mirror back” the behavior or emotions of people near them.
“If the child is silly or giddy, the horse doesn’t like that. It will get nervous, skiddish and move away,” she said. “You can see it in their eyes, in their bodies.
“And kids really see it. They think, ‘What I did, made him do that.’ None of them wants to upset the horse.”
When that happens, the child has to step back to be safe.
“The horse is a great motivator. The kids don’t want to sit out. So, it causes them to self-regulate.”
Or as Savannah puts it, “I calm myself down.”
Children with autism don’t tend to make eye contact or read facial expressions. Bertils said she think the therapy is effective because they see the whole animal.
“Because the horse is so big, the kids are more aware. It’s hard to miss what the horse is doing. The kids have to tune-in in a whole different way.”
They also benefit from the total acceptance horses exhibit.
Once the child calms down, the horse “will come right back,” she said. “The kid thinks, ‘Wow, if I calm down the horse still likes me.’”
Horses are very forgiving, Bertils said. Sometimes, humans are not.
“Everyone needs that acceptance,” Owens said. “For kids who are little different, they need it a little more. They feel that connection.”
For Kelly, lessons learned in the barn have crossed over into the home, Bertils said. That ability to apply lessons from one situation to another is unusual in children with autism.
“When they understand the emotions of the horse, they now understand emotions of humans. (The therapy) really seems to tap into, especially, the autistic realm.”
Kelly was diagnosed with fetal alcohol syndrome and autism as an infant. When the Bertils adopted her at 18 months old, they were told their daughter couldn’t walk or talk.
“She doesn’t stop talking now,” Bertils said.
Teamwork exercises, in which children work together to guide horses, have rendered results too. Children with autism usually play independently.
“For Kelly to be able to work in a team, that’s been huge,” Bertils said.
Owens, who earned a bachelor’s degree in special education from Minnesota State University Moorhead in 2005 and trained in equine therapy, has tested the therapeutic techniques on her sister Kelly for many years.
“That proved to me that it is effective and long-lasting,” Owens said, and that the learning is put to use in other situations.
The changes in Kelly have been “fantastic,” said Bertils. “All the things they told us she can’t do, maybe she can.”
Variety of treatment
Owens, who has been providing one-on-one services to clients for 10 years, started offering classes for groups last summer. This year, she’s offering 11-week sessions, “Kids and Horses” and “Kids and Nature,” and a four-week session, “Adults and Nature,” which began June 4. Clients attend one morning or afternoon each week.
A variety of animals — horses, goats, rabbits, chickens and even a potbellied pig — are used in therapy settings to promote emotional and physical wellness, Owens said.
In addition to those with autism, some clients have anxiety, attachment and attention deficit disorders, developmental delays, and traumatic brain injury. Some have multiple conditions.
The program has expanded to include children who don’t have special needs. Mixing children with different ability levels benefits all, she said.
From Dale’s perspective, he said he’s glad Savannah can participate.
Looking towards the future, he said, “My view of the world is, ‘How is she going to fit?’ When I see this, I don’t worry as much. It makes me happy.”
Reach Knudson at (701) 780-1107; (800) 477-6572, ext. 107; or send e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org.