The Dancing Bear

We’ve just returned from a memorial for a mother, artist, musician, wife, autism advocate, photographer – a woman whose warmth and smile lit up any room she stepped into. 

Her autistic son opened the memorial by singing “Chasing Angels” a perfect song about loss. He sang and played from his heart and his talent showed through.

As friends and families approached the stage to memorialize our friend, we all had a chance to get to know her better and better through our stories.

Suddenly, I watched as a friend, a man with autism including severe social anxiety stood up and headed from the back of the room to the microphone. He had something to say. 

He introduced himself as autistic and a friend of the deceased and of her family. He recounted a conversation he’d had with her about an autism charity that was developing a reputation from autistic people as disrespectful to people with autism. He was asking our friend why she would support the charity. He related that our friend admitted that to this charity, her musician son was “a dancing bear” but that funds for research and support were important and that her son would prove himself a successful musician irrespective of his autism diagnosis. 

I can’t stop thinking about this entire exchange. 

I’m so grateful my friend voiced the story – that the burning need to showcase this woman’s wisdom and love overrode his anxiety about speaking to a crowd. 

And I can’t get this notion of “a dancing bear” out of my head. 

There’s a saying of Maya Angelo

And when put in the context of “a dancing bear” it’s time for charities and non profits to do so much better. To trade the dignity of another for any amount of funds or advantage is a deal with the devil and we all know how that story ends. 

We must instead focus on letting those with less of a voice be able to tell their own stories. 

Gone are the days when freak shows were opportunities for the masses to see difference and laugh and rejoice because the other’s freakishness confirmed our normalcy. The cruelty of this seems obvious and yet how many times each day are we guilty of some measure of the same? 

I was backstage with a group of speakers for a conference and one of the speakers is a retired infantry soldier with severe PTSD who found tremendous relief of his symptoms in an equine assisted program. He was nervous and I smiled and told him he was going to “do great.” He peered at me and said “I’m going out there to be a chicken dancing on a hot plate for these folks to make them feel better.”

I had no reply. 

If the opposite of love is not hate but indifference, the opposite of compassion is pity.  

A friend wrote a book and a film about his family’s oddysey journey of autism though horses and shamanic healers. He naturally started a program and invited others to experience what he and his son found through horses and neuroscience and traditional healing. People flocked from all over the world in search of a miracle. It was exciting to be sure. 

But it soon became apparent that people wanted to see his son and hold him up as a “miracle child.” The son, young but wise, made it clear that he didn’t want to live in a fishbowl to be watched and studied. He wanted to be a kid who learned and made mistakes and played in rivers and thought deeply about maps and dinosaurs and birds. 

Watching the family navigate how to allow their son to tell his own story while helping other families find their own path is a lesson in dignity I’ll not forget. 

I’m reminding myself today that my liberation is tied up with yours and together we all have the chance to dance and be seen for our unique contributions. 

Rest in Peace Christinna Guzman 7.09.60 – 1.30.24

Center of Attention

In Behaviorism (think B.F. Skinner), humans do things for three reasons only:

To gain access to something

To get away from something, or avoid someone, something

To satisfy a sensory need.

To gain access to something includes getting attention, attunement, or if you will – love. For the record, my spell check refuses to acknowledge “attunement” as a word. It’s something which trauma therapist Sarah Schlotte describes as, “Being seen, being heard, feeling felt, and getting gotten.”

If your neurobiology is such that you, particularly when stressed, can’t ask for attention, attunement or love – you might resort to some seemingly strange behaviors in order to have access to these three critical human needs. 

Meet N. He’s a young man working in our job training program. As an autistic person, he checks off all the boxes – his stimming includes pumping the air with his fists and then hitting himself in the head repeatedly, humming while plugging his ears and rubbing his temples and shutting his eyes in a desperate attempt to stem the flow of sensory input. 

He also does“scripting” which looks like repeating a phrase he’s heard over  and over  – often from a movie, or a video, or a song. For a long time, scripting was viewed as self-soothing behavior and the words were just repeated over and over with no meaning attached. Thankfully, now we see scripting as a sophisticated attempt at communication and is often  filled with rich metaphors as the person chooses the script and to whom it’s delivered. 

N has songs he shares with people at the ranch. He throws out a line of a song and you sing the next line. It gives him great pleasure because it’s the essence of a conversation with a predictable and harmonious give and take. For me, he throws out an old spiritual

“Swing low”

And I come back with

“Sweet chariot”

Sometimes we sing the next line together

“Comin’ for to carry me home.”

I wonder how many people know that the hymn is a prayer of a slave who wishes to die and go to heaven in order to escape the peril and toil of slavery.  I wonder if N knows. 

When N is having a particularly hard day, we give him space. He’ll sit at the picnic table and have conversations with himself and if you listen, he’s trying really hard to “behave.” He’s throwing out lines from people he’s heard who have counseled him. It sounds something like this:

“Gotta be a good guy N. Gotta get to work. Gotta. Hey buddy! How’s it going?”

The other night, we organized a trip to San Francisco’s Exploratorium. It’s a  hands-on science museum where every display is meant not just to teach a scientific concept, but to bring the learner into the experience as a participant. It’s revolutionizing how science museums (and hopefully history museums) are conceptualized. On Thursday nights, they make the museum an adults only event with bars, a DJ and a fantastic vibe where San Franciscans go for dates and an outing that’s fun, hip, and interactive.

Thirty five adult members of #TeamQuirky showed including N and his mom. 

Our guests dispersed all over the museum and Darius and I spent the evening wandering around making sure everyone felt safe and engaged. 

N had a hard time getting started. Seeing people out of context is often an anxiety trigger for him. Seeing his barn buddies in the evening, in clean clothes and styled hair made him worry about whom he’d recognize and what would be required of him socially. 

However, 90 minutes into the event, he was still at the museum and his mom gave us a couple “thumbs up” to let us know they were enjoying themselves and didn’t need additional support. 

As we were leaving for home that night, my phone lit up with photos from N’s mom.

It seems that N absolutely loved a particular interactive display.

One section of the museum is dedicated to emotions and culture. N  found an exhibit called “The Center of Attention.”

You walk through a curtain into what looks like a Photo Booth and stand in front of a microphone facing a wall sized photo of a packed audience (think Carnegie Hall with several balconies). All eyes are on you under spotlights. You say something into the mic 

And then.

The audience erupts in applause. 

Attention. Attunement. Love

Basic. Human. Needs. 

Laughter as Medicine by Joell Dunlap

I had the honor of speaking at the Journey On Podcast Summit in San Antonio, TX last month.

The lineup of speakers was thrilling and intimidating. I’d be sharing the stage with luminaries in the horse world such as Linda Kahonov, Ariana Strozzi Mazzucchi, Chantal Prat, and more. I wondered what I had to offer the audience when compared to researchers, neuroscientists, people who’d ridden from Alaska to Chile, or in the Mongolian Derby for goodnessakes!

I also wanted to try something different. Warwick advised all of the invitees to take our 19 minutes in the spotlight to bring what we wanted to see into the world.

I obsessed over how I’d present the Square Peg story, or perhaps my personal journey. Then it hit me. We often attend conferences like this looking for a hidden truth, a process, a protocol, a snippet of wisdom that enhances our lives, or untangles a knot in our brains or guts. We’re willing to hike to the tops of mountains to meet a guru, or to study at the foot of the master for as long as it takes.

But what if an answer has always been right at our fingertips? What if there’s a magic potion in our pocket or at least just within reach that makes it all better?

This is the topic of my talk.

I was willing to go to some uncomfortable places to get us all to that place – to that medicine.

I had two secret weapons with me. Two key staff, Emma Bond and Kemma Peters accompanied me to San Antonio. They brought the magic sauce with them. Their timing, their willingness, brought it all home.

Continue reading “Laughter as Medicine by Joell Dunlap”

A Mother’s Story

A Different Perspective – Laura’s Story

Laura H’s essay on why she supports Square Peg brings in a whole new perspective.

The Wilson Family Tells Their Story

The Wilson Family Shares Their Square Peg Story

Meaningful Work – And Why It’s Important

EveryONE Fits – Why It Matters

To The Second Act – a gift from filmmaker Stanton Hill

To the Second Act is a short film given as a gift from filmmaker Stanton Hill
A Young Woman Makes Career Choices Based on Lessons Learned at Square Peg
A Young Man’s Art Illustrates His Love For Horses and His Job At Square Peg
One Boy’s Haven – A Square Peg Story


I envy people who cry. 

In middle school, I remember sitting in a circle of eight girls. We were at an age when girls are developing emotional skills at an accelerated pace. One girl was losing her mom to cancer and two of the other girls had lost their mothers already.  They were telling their stories of cancer and pain and guilt and loss. It was as emotional as can be. The whole group was sobbing.

Photo by Robin Peters

Except me.

It wasn’t that I wasn’t  sad. I just couldn’t cry. I looked around the circle and wondered what the heck was wrong with me. 

I pretended to cry. I looked down and copied the heaving chests, the running noses. I wiped my face as if to push away tears that didn’t exist. I wanted to honor their stories and boy oh boy did I want to be able to cry.

In the 40 years since, I can remember three or four solid crying sessions. The kind that leave you tired and empty – but empty in a cleaned out sort of way. 

I “mist up” like any human, but I’m lucky if a single tear erupts and then the opportunity just evaporates. 

I’m checking my privileges. I’ve led a charmed life of health and freedom. But my career has me holding space for people as they process all kids of grief and loss. As I hold space for people to grieve and process – I wish I could dip in and borrow a little bit of the relief a good cry offers. 

Once I read a piece of mine to a group of writers. It was an emotional piece about a pony who died that I respected and cherished. I looked up at the end of the piece to the instructor and she said;

“Look around Joell.”

I beheld a room full of crying people of different ages. People I knew and people I’d just met and I’d moved them to feel something deep. As usual, I envied their tears. 

I used to cry in my sleep until I realized that I knew I was dreaming of crying. I’d immediately either wake up or dream that my crying was interrupted. 

Have I become so jaded, so guarded, so controlling that I won’t give myself permission to feel? This notion is a nasty heavy thought to haul around – I don’t recommend it.

But something happened yesterday.

Becca asked me to help with a new family. She hoped my knowledge and insight could help draw out from the mother some ideas of how to serve the family.

The daughter has a host of diagnosis’ with an overarching label of “failure to thrive.” Those three words alone should make any mother cry – especially mothers of premature babies.

The daughter is four years old. She’s not able to crawl or hold her gaze for long. Her head and eyes loll about as she squirms like an infant. A golf ball sized growth on her forehead distracts you from her velvet blue eyes and her downy soft curly hair. 

Photo by Robin Peters

Becca was on Mowgli – the world’s best back riding horse. He’s an imported gelding deemed “too lazy” to be a dressage horse. He’s a closed book emotionally. He prefers to be alone. He’s trustworthy, obedient and steady but not affectionate or joyful. He shows no preference for particular humans but is extremely clear if he has a dislike for another horse. If you were to ask me what motivates him – I’d say he likes to be peacefully alone. 

The mother strapped her daughter into an infant’s pouch across the mother’s chest and approached us. Mowgli never flinched when the daughter’s legs kicked out in excitement. The child stuck out her tongue and leaned towards Mowgli’s head. Her hand reached directly toward his eye. She leaned her forehead on his face and she softly licked his cheek. 

Any horseperson knows that the mother and the child were milliseconds away from an injury should Mowgli shake his head to remove a fly. They were in an invasive spot to the horse’s face and could be nudged hard by his nose, nipped by his teeth or bonked by the hard bones of his jaw.

Looking at Mowgli, I saw a softening I’ve never seen from him: A quietness and a kindness that wasn’t patience or fortitude, but a flow of care and sweetness and stillness he’s never shown to another creature in the years we’ve had him.

My chest tightened and tears welled as I looked him in the eye and asked him with my mind “Are you sure you’re ok?”

Mowgli’s look told me to either leave them alone, or kindly rest into the sweetness and allow all of us to feel our way into a communion of innocence and presence. My tears, as usual, evaporated. I allowed the peace, the stillness, and the kindness to wash over me.

Perhaps I’ve learned to cry like a horse. 

Resources for Understanding Trauma – As a Hamilton Parody

The question of how to help parents, teachers, and community members understand that many children who have been identified as having “behavior issues” that have traditionally been dealt punishments, isolation, and worse actually are desperately needing attunement, care, and acceptance is on my mind very much. 

I could spend time “preaching to the choir” talking to families of people with kids that have been labeled as challenging and we could compare horror stories of how their kids had been treated badly in the community – but while that helps hold space for families, I wanted to assemble something for others to explore and to expand their understanding of how brains work, how real compassion is not “coddling” and also to bring a sense of curiosity that may lead people to explore this work.

The challenge then, becomes one of getting people’s interest. One of my favorite ways to think about sparking interest is to make something funny, catchy, accessible and entertaining. But how do you make the intersection of brain science and compassion entertaining without undermining the critical nature of both subjects?

My solution: an amateur parody of a song that is widely known, catchy and, well – fun.

I chose Lin-Manuel Miranda’s “Alexander Hamilton” because it’s a well-known story born from trauma that develops into triumph; because it’s got a lot of words in it so that I could fit a lot of concepts into the parody and because I just love the tune. 

Below the video is a list of resources – a toolkit of sorts – most of them mentioned in the parody lyrics and I few that I think are useful on many levels for building classrooms and communities that can recognize toxic stress in people and react with attunement, co-regulation and kindness where we might otherwise be defensive, angry or confused. 

I’d like to thank the staff of Square Peg Foundation for being such good sports as I finagled them into singing lyrics, reviewing footage, and mostly for being shining beacons of humanity in exemplifying trauma informed practices. 


DANA, D. Creating A Story Of Safety: A Polyvagal Guide To Managing Anxiety. . (2020). [Video/DVD] PESI Inc.

DELAHOOKE, M. (2019). Beyond behaviors: Effective neuroscience-based tools to transform childhood behaviors. Eau Claire WI: PESI, Inc.

DESAUTELS, L. (2020). Connections over compliance: Rewiring our perceptions of discipline. Deadwood, OR: Wyatt-Mackenzie Publishing.

HARRIS, Nadine Burke (2020). Deepest well: Healing the long-term effects of childhood adversity. BLUEBIRD. 

HARRIS, Nadine Burke (2019) Written Statement of Dr. Nadine Burke Harris Surgeon General of California Before the Committee on Education and Labor United States House of Representatives Full Committee Hearing: Trauma-Informed Care in Schools  https://

PERRY, Bruce. (2017, November 16). Early Brain Development: Reducing the Effects of  Trauma [Video].

PERRY, B. [Info NMN]. (2020,). 12. Understanding the Power Differential:Neurosequential Network Series on Stress & Trauma. [Video]. YouTube.

PERRY, B. [Neurosequential Network]. (2020, April 2). 4. Regulate, Relate, Reason (Sequence of Engagement): Neurosequential Network Stress & Trauma Series. YouTube. 

PERRY, B. D. & APLON, J.S. (2019) In Collaborative Problem Solving: An Evidence based Approach to Implementation and Practice.  Springer, Boulder

PERRY, B.D.  & WINFREY, O.  (2021) What happened to you? Conversations on trauma, resilience, and healing.  Flatiron.

PORGES, S.W. (2020). Clinical Neuropsychiatry. The Covid-19 Pandemic Is a Paradoxical       Challenge to Our Nervous System: A Polyvagal Perspective, 17(2), 135–138.

PRIZANT, Barry, PhD. (2016) Uniquely Human: A Different Way of Seeing Autism, Simon & Schuster

VAN DER KOLK, B.  (2012).  The Body Keeps the Score.  Viking.

Precious Gifts

Here’s hoping your Holidays have been healthy and kind.

Here at Square Peg, we have so much to be thankful for. The rains have finally arrived and despite the mud, we are thankful for the water that is quenching California. We are thankful for the support of our community, for the trust of our families and for the kindness and the generosity of our horses.

Last month, Stanton Hill, an accomplished filmmaker reached out to us to offer a gift of his tremendous talent. Due to COVID travel restrictions, we were only able to provide him with stock video of Square Peg. He studied our website, asked a few great questions and what he turned out took our breath away.

Enjoy Stanton’s 1:00 video showcasing the horses – Square Peg’s real heroes and capturing the majesty, the love, and the healing they bring.

Here’s to precious gifts.

Your Donation Makes It All Possible

We promised to make you proud to be a contributor. View or download our annual review here to see exactly how your donations make a difference. Please donate to help us continue this work.

Donate Here