Written by Tessa Biggs
Every Sunday I drive to a small, hunter-green barn in Half Moon Bay. Eucalyptus trees line the winding dirt road, greenery flourishes everywhere, and crisp ocean air fills your lungs. It’s a magical spot – but what makes Square Peg Foundation so special isn’t the location. Square Peg is a non-profit, horsemanship center that works with disabled kids, mainly autistic.
Autistic people have an excess of a chemical called cortisol in their brains, which creates anxiety and stress. Rhythmic movement of the hips, such as riding a horse, produces oxytocin, which counteracts cortisol and creates feelings of happiness and peace. Aside from the neurochemical benefits, letting a child interact with such patient creatures helps them learn in a different way. I’ve watched a four year old tell a seven foot tall horse to nod, give her a kiss, and then smile.
For a child who can rarely make eye contact, this illuminates the idea of communication itself.
Today, I want to tell everyone about J, a little boy who changed my life. The day I met J was a chilly Sunday morning in February. Out of the fog he emerged, a wild-haired, pink-cheeked, 6 year old with a smile that could kill and and a giggle that rang out. Instantly, I fell in love.
This past year, I have spent every Sunday with J, playing hide and seek, tag, and watching him grow. We’ve invented songs, built forts, caught lizards, wrestled, and rode. No matter how terrible my week had been, he always brightened it. One week, he created handmade shirts for everyone. Another week, there was a jumping lesson that HE got to teach, with a singing lesson afterwards.
But every child has inevitable ups and downs. J fell into a rough patch: terrible frustration, violent tantrums, and negotiations. To him, punching, kicking, and spitting were how he communicated his anger. Yet somehow, the worst part was – he was unable to explain to us his inconsolable frustration.
Before we continue – I need to clarify: at Square Peg, acceptance is absolute. Elsewhere – acceptance is a privilege that can be bestowed or revoked depending on a child’s behavior. Acceptance, patience, and kindness are fundamental to any child, even more so for one who is not neurotypical.
After several explosive lessons, we knew that the game plan needed to be changed. After thorough discussion, we settled on a new idea. J is a natural born leader, his creativity blossoms when he is given a task. J would do an obstacle course, but he would have creative control. We set up barrels, ground poles, zig zags, and hula hoops.
When J arrived, we greeted him with hugs and waves and told him our big news. “ Hey dude, guess what? You get to do your own obstacle course: and we will all do it with you. You can teach us!” J shrieked in excitement, grabbed the pony, and bolted to the arena.
The minute he saw it, his eyes became fiery with determination. He immediately began to rearrange the course. We quickly said to him, “Two minutes of course building, and then jump on and ride your pony”
Surprisingly enough, after we told him his time was up, J happily mounted the pony and rode the course. Over the next hour, J carefully told us each new combination. Sometimes it was “around the barrels and through the hula hoop, and other times I had to canter around like a horse while he chased me – giggling uncontrollably.
While this seems like such a small event, he stayed focused, asked for permission to dismount, and thanked us at the end of the lesson; a profound breakthrough.
Author Paul Collins wrote, “the problem with pounding a Square Peg into a round hole isn’t that the hammering is such hard work, it’s that you are destroying the peg.” It isn’t about forcing those who are different into a predefined mold, it is about changing the mold of society to support and help the individual thrive.
J still has incapacitating meltdowns, but he is learning to communicate his needs in a nonviolent way. I meet a lot of square pegs at the barn, and each one is beautiful, creative, and inspiring in their own unique way.
Square peg has taught me that sometimes its okay to fall on the floor laughing, to go with the flow, to check your ego at the door and openly make a fool of yourself. I have learned that depth and intellectual greatness lie in every individual.
I would like to leave you with this poem by
Rob Siltanen with participation of Lee Clow
Here’s to the Crazy Ones/The round pegs in the square holes./ The ones who see things differently.
You can praise them, disagree with them, quote them,
disbelieve them, glorify or vilify them.
About the only thing you cannot do is ignore them.
Because they change things.
They push the human race forward. / Maybe they have to be crazy…
“Because the people who are crazy enough to think they
can change the world are the ones who do.”