A Very Personal History – And a Chance to Make Change

In 1984 I became a mom.  I was still in high school.  My son Greg was born 9 weeks early and weighed 3 and a half pounds. While he grew in an incubator in the hospital, I finished both high school and my first quarter of college.

My son’s learning difficulty started early.  He had trouble focusing and staying still.  The more people tried to force him to sit in a classroom, the worse his frustration grew.  He was singled out for visits to the principal, suspensions, bullying from not just other kids, but by parents who felt their child wasn’t getting the education they needed because of his behaviors.

By 5th grade I’d run out of options.  He was expelled from school for fighting.  I was working two jobs.  I pulled him from school and began to homeschool despite threats from the superintendent who warned me that he wouldn’t get the socialization he needed.  I reminded him that my son was beaten brutally by another 5th grader while he was at school. His school refused to take action.

I learned quickly about education.  Not from books, but from my son.  I learned that he needed to touch things, manipulate them and feel them.  His brain needed to run and climb and wonder. I learned that daydreaming time is critical mind processing time. We read books in trees, we learned fractions in the kitchen with measuring cups and bags of macaroni noodles. We learned history from reading foreign films. We visited art museums and splashed in the creek.  Because I still needed to work two jobs I sought out mentors – from the
security guards – all retired policemen at the racetrack where I worked to the horseshoer who cared for our horses – my son learned by doing and moving. He began to believe  he wasn’t stupid or unable.

We moved to Southern California and my job got busier. I enrolled him in an academically competitive junior high school where he floundered.  He fell in with “the wrong kids” and began  skipping school because school was, in his words “not for him.”

margotPegIn 2004, we started Square Peg Ranch.  My son was now a young man, working on a farm in Maui.  He’d left high school and was looking for his place in the world.  In Maui, he re-discovered nature and beauty.  He was riding horses again and was mentored by the local polo pro who taught him the game he loves.  Alone, he explored the Haleakla Volcano by horseback for days on end.

As his life began to take shape, this thing called Square Peg did as well.  I knew how much kids who didn’t feel like they “fit in” needed a place where they were valued and accepted.  I also wanted to provide a space for the horses who didn’t fit in – mainly failed race horses could find safety.  My thought was that these kids would care for the horses and both would find peace and safety.

Twelve years later we are on 110 acres,  with 19 horses, three dogs, a couple of goats and a thriving population of families who know the loneliness of having nowhere to fit in.

Every day, I sit with parents who tell me stories of how their child was expelled, shunned, rejected because of “behaviors” in the classroom.  I hear about how people came up to them in the grocery store to tell them that their child needed “a swift kick in the butt.”  They tell us stories of finding their child looking in the bathroom mirror and telling their reflection that they are “bad” or “crazy.”

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At the ranch, difference is celebrated – childhood is revered.  The animals reflect back the innocence and the curiosity that the students project.  The natural setting creates a space with minimal sensory triggers – the things that often bring about behaviors such as aggression or elopement (running away) or the dreaded autism tantrums – (crying and screaming jags that can last hours).

The environment we developed at the ranch is set up so that there is an inherent feeling of peace for the parents and the animals and especially for the students.  Laughter is the original communication because it imparts the permission to be joyful.

The experts say that people won’t care what you do – they care why you do it.

Square Peg was dreamed up by a young mother with a child that needed to move and to be encouraged for his curiosity and to have his kindness understood as a strength.  It was created to make a space for ex-racehorses who had given their all on the track and now needed to have a place where they were safe and needed and cared for.  Square Peg was built  for a parent who was desperate for her child to be understood and even admired and where that parent could hear the magical sound of her child laughing.

Square Peg built a reputation of trust with these families by putting human dignity first – and that has made all of the difference.

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Square Peg will be successful when nothing we do is special. 

We work tirelessly to make that happen.  We show the world that a person’s dignity is sacred and worthy of reverence. To help others understand that a child’s curiosity is a force more important than facts and procedures and that the most important skills in life – joy, self advocacy, building community and compassion are essential to cultivate and encourage so that these “Square Pegs” can live up to their potential. When neuro-diversity is the new cool we will know we are successful.

This is my personal request for you to join the Revolution

Together we will make change for these families and for the millions of families like them, we offer a ray of hope.

Our mission statement holds as true today as on the day we wrote it over 12 years ago:  Square Peg’s Mission is to turn “I wish” into “I can.”

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We hope you will join us.

What follows is a modest proposal we aim to have funded by June 1, 2016.

Please donate – and share with others who want to be part of our Revolution of Kindness

the greatest poverty is not hunger. The greatest poverty is loneliness and a feeling of being unwanted.” Mother Teresa of Calcutta


To prove Support and Environment are the KEYS to success in learning and in behaviors for children on the Autism Spectrum.

Movement Method™ takes the best of scientifically researched and proven methods and added the secret ingredients: Care and Engagement.

To do this, we employ Movement Method™ Learning

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To understand Movement Method™ Learning you need to first understand how two hormones, oxytocin and cortisol, affect a child with autism’s ability to learn.

Cortisol is the stress hormone. It is released by the amygdala and produces the flight or fight response. Cortisol is necessary for us to function successfully. It is what allows us to escape from or fight a threat and stay safe. However, it is also likely to impair our ability to receive and retain new information.

In contrast oxytocin is the “feel-good” or pleasure hormone. It is a vital part of the mammalian care-giving system and allows us to down-regulate the stress caused by cortisol. Oxytocin allows us to feel safe. When we feel safe we have more attention available to focus on new concepts and to learn.

It is well-established that children with autism have an over-active amygdala which causes increased cortisol production. It is therefore essential to decrease their cortisol production and increase their oxytocin production in order to help them learn.


To build and staff a Movement Method Learning Center at Square Peg Ranch, Half Moon Bay, CA.  Donate Here

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The Right Physical Environment + The Right Human Environment = Learning

If you want a child with autism to learn then you need to create an environment that is conducive to learning.

The ideal learning environment is set-up to increase oxytocin and reduce cortisol production by targeting the child’s sensory needs and allowing the child to move (PHYSICAL ENVIRONMENT).

In addition the child is taught in a flexible, fun and pressure free way through their passions and intrinsic interests (HUMAN ENVIRONMENT).

When both the physical and human environment is set up correctly the child advances quickly in terms of their perspective taking, social and life skills, academics and self-advocacy (LEARNING).

Target Population and Children Served

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Autism Families of the Bay Area including San Mateo, San Francisco,  and Santa Clara Counties – the autistic children rage in age from 4 to 16 years old – their siblings range from 3 to 19.  We plan to intensely serve 16 children in the summer of 2016 with these programs. These children will receive over 1,200 total hours of one on one hours with certified therapists at the site in the summer of 2016.


With this grant, we will create a self sustaining teaching model, through home school associations and parent participation, insurance and Regional Center support after this first year. The need is tremendous for these families to have a safe emotional space for learning and exploration in a safe physical and emotional environment.

Measurement of Success

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Each child will receive an initial assessment from a Board Certified Behavior Analyst and Educational Consultant.  This is a collaborative effort between parents and credentialed professionals. This assessment will provide a baseline measure for the participant in the domains of communication, behavior, social development, and activities of daily living. Goals will be created for each domain by the BCBA and carefully tracked by the one on one therapists. At the end of the summer, a progress report will reflect the growth of each participant. An annual report will be complied for the program that reflects the number of mastered goals in each domain.

Each hour spent with trained staff will be recorded and measured against the initial assessment and goals using the latest technology in ABA Therapy.  Through these tools, behavior and academic goals and activities data will be constantly reviewed by peers, by the families and by the attending specialists.


    • Staff costs 1,200 hours x $45 per hour = $54,000
    • Occupancy $11,250
    • Landscaping (poison oak eradication and edible plant project): $4,000
    • Surf Program $5,000
    • Equipment : lights for the campsite, water and bathroom rentals: $2,200
    • Outfit the TeePee $4,500 (sensory friendly learning tools)
    • Volunteer Costs (training sessions and support) $2,000
    • Insurance $2,300
    • Food for campouts $1,600

Total $75,600

Already raised <$25,000> January 2016 (The Miner Foundation of Orem Utah)

Remainder: $50,600


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Square Peg has been serving autism families and rescued animals in Half Moon Bay since 2004. Cognitive breakthroughs in communication, social interaction and self advocacy are a daily happening here. Our methods are effective, compassionate and sustainable. This document seeks to expand and deepen our work for this very worthy population and to inspire other programs to expand their reach and better utilize their operations.

Twelve years ago, Square Peg Ranch set out to change the dynamic we saw at many therapeutic riding programs.  Instead of going to the ranch because you have autism, or a related neuropsychiatric issue – families come to the ranch because the horses need them. The notion of meaningful care of other non verbal beings alongside others in a community based on caring is a life changer for many of our families.


  HIS CHOICE: “At Square Peg, Connor has no disability. The world isn’t hard.

     My son who struggles to pay attention, especially to people speaking, pays rapt attention to his instructor. He does everything in his power to do exactly as she instructs. But, she is not judging. She is not dictating. She gently leads him. Where would he like to go in the ring? His choice. Would he like to trot or walk?

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     His choice.

     She is teaching him to make choices. To be more independent. To let him know his opinion counts. To have confidence in himself. To be successful on his own terms.”

– LaDonna Ford, parent

THE CRUSADE FOR EMPOWERMENT “Square Peg provided a vessel for me to help others but Square Peg helped me too. I was diagnosed with ADHD/ADD at age ten (coincidentally, the same time I started riding horses). Since then, I was on five or six different medications for over ten years. I was explaining my medication history to someone when it hit me that I had been on powerful stimulants for 10 years; a decade of crucial emotional, physical, and mental development. I didn’t know who I was without the  meds.”

– Deborah Lynn Rod, Square Peg Intern

“The Ranch is a place where over the years I have seen my child’s courage and competence blossom. Where I have had the opportunity to see my child through the eyes of people who believe in him and value what he offers them. Where I have had the opportunity to examine my own assumptions and expectations and felt renewed clarity and optimism as a result.”

– Anonymous letter from an autism parentphoto-10

RAISING STRONG GIRLS TAKES A VILLAGE: “But it was Square Peg who embraced and championed her strength and intelligence at this critical time.  Square Peg allowed me to drown out the negative voices and confirmed what I already knew about my daughter.  I’m the one that has grown as a parent and advocate of my child; my kid was never the issue. But then, they always knew that at the Barn…”

I believe that hearing laughter gives us strength.
I believe that hearing laughter gives us strength.

After we got home, my child did some things in the next week that I’ve rarely seen him do before, mostly that involved getting out of his shell.   The camp did wonders for his self-esteem and self-confidence — just being accepted, welcomed, and built up by so many genuinely caring volunteers was invaluable and unmeasurable.   For me, the camp was a much needed respite, and encouragement.  I learn more from other parents of special needs kids than I ever learn from our MDs or books, so being able to have time to meet other parents and get to know them was wonderful.  For me, having an special needs kid has been so lonely and difficult, and just being given the opportunity to participate in something so generous felt like a miracle.”

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“I was amazed at how all the volunteers (surfing, camping, horse riding) were so engaging with the kids, and how willing they were to play with the kids.   This gave me a huge break from constant childcare, which translates into a huge decline in stress level.  It was three days of respite for me.”

“Thank you very much for the great family camp. N. had so much fun. Riding horses every day, driving around in the utility cart to feed the horses, and saying good morning and good night to them deepens her love for these sweet horses. Your dogs filled the rest of her days with more fun and love. The campfire, the great tasting food and sleeping in a tent just happened to be a few more of her favorites. No wonder she felt sad on the last day and asked me whether we could have stayed longer. Once again, our lives are enriched because of N.  I was speechless in admiring how giving and loving all of you are. It was the most satisfying moments when I saw you folks enjoy N. as much as I do, actually even more than me sometimes. I wish I could learn your sense of humor in your reaction with N.   This event has recharged me with more hope, energy and strength.”

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“The day was magical and of course the things that no one could plan, the whales breeching, the dolphins  and sea lions and all the birds, the perfect weather conditions were awesome. But as a parent who has been to many events, the things that you did plan, the wetsuits, the boards, the sand toys, all the food and the absolutely amazing team of adults and teens was beyond inspirational and touching. There were numerous time during and after that tears came to my eyes when thinking about the generous spirit you all brought to the day.”

Supporting Research

The Physiology of Autism

Our bodies are built to deal with short term stress not chronic stress. Chronic levels of cortisol damage cells in the hippocampus which impairs our ability to learn (Medina, 2008).

Children with autism have elevated levels of cortisol and tend to respond to novel and threatening stimuli with extreme cortisol reactions (Corbett et al, 2006).

Oxytocin can help decrease stress by acting on the amygdala and inhibiting cortisol production (Neumann, 2008; Heinrichs et al, 2003).

Oxytocin might lead to improved speech comprehension in individuals with an autism spectrum disorder (Hollander et al, 2007).

The Positive Benefits of Horses & Other AnimalsPanz&Ava

Positive interactions between humans and non-human mammals (such as dogs, cats or horses) can lead to an increase in oxytocin and a corresponding decrease in cortisol (Odendaal, 2000; Barker et al, 2005; Handlin et al,2011). Especially true in children with autism whose cortisol levels upon waking are reduced by up to 60% in the presence of a dog (Viau et al, 2010).

Children who participated in a 12 week riding program had significantly lower stress hormone levels than a waitlist control (Pendry, 2014).

Equine Assisted therapy leads to greater functionality in children with autism, especially in regards to their expressive language and social skills (Bass et al, 2009; Gabriel’s et al, 2012).

Gigi pastureThe Benefits of Nature

People who live in areas with more green space have lower levels of cortisol (Ward et al, 2012).

Having plants in your home is linked to lower levels of cortisol (Ward et al, 2012)

ADHD symptoms greatly reduced when in the presence of nature or doing activities in nature (Kuo & Taylor, 2004).

Walking through nature evidence of lower frustration, engagement and arousal, and higher concentration and positive emotions (Aspinall et al 2013)

A strain of bacterium in soil, Mycobacterium vaccae, has been found to trigger the release of seratonin, which in turn elevates mood and decreases anxiety. Seratonin is also thought to play a role in learning (Jenks & Matthews, 2010).

The Importance of Replacing Bad Sensory Triggers with Good Onesjames-adorbs

Sensory over-responsitivity is now considered to be a core feature of autism (Ben-Sassoon et al, 2009). Children with autism are five times more likely to have sensory over-responsitivity than members of the general public (Green & Ben-Sasson, 2010).

Sensory processing difficulties are a unique predictor of communication competence and maladaptive behaviors (Lane et al, 2010).

Sensory stimulation (such as a loud noise or scratch sweater) causes hyperactivation in the primary sensory cortex (responsible for initially processing sensory information) and amygdala of children with autism. What’s more autistic brains do not ‘get used’ to the sensory information over time – their responses remain elevated (Owen et al, 2013).

Simply replacing fluorescent lights with softer and colored lighting, playing soothing music and using butterfly wraps that provide calming deep pressure dramatically decreased anxiety and negative behaviors among children with autism (Stein et al, 2013).

Deep pressure is therapeutically beneficial for children with an autism spectrum disorder (Grandin, 1992; Edelson et al, 1999).


We are evolutionarily programmed to learn on the move – (Leonard et al, 1997)

Imaging studies have shown that when we exercise there is increased blood flow to the dentate gyrus which is a part of the hippocampus deeply involved in memory formation (Green et al, 2004).

Imaging studies have shown that exercise stimulates the brain’s most powerful growth factor, BDNF, which is responsible for creating new brain cells and encouraging neurons to connect with one another, both essential parts of learning (Vaynman et al, 2006).

There is a strong body of evidence that shows a strong relationship between motor and cognitive processes. There are direct links between the cerebellum and the basal ganglia (two parts of the brain that process motor activities) and the parts of the brain that process language and memory i.e. cerebellum activation triggers activation in these other parts of the brain (Middleton & Strick, 1994).

The vestibular (inner ear) is activated by any movement that stimulates inner-ear motion such as swinging, rolling, jumping or riding a horse. Activation of the vestibular causes activation of the reticular activating system which is critical to our attentional system and learning (Wolfe, 2005).

Oxygen is essential for brain function, and enhanced blood flow increases the amount of oxygen transported to the brain. Physical activity is a reliable way to increase blood flow, and hence oxygen, to the brain (Medina, 2008)

Simply standing increases heart rate and this blood flow by up to 10% in just seconds (Krock & Hartung, 1992).

68% of high school students in the US do not participate in a daily physical education program (Grunbaum, 2002).

Children with dyslexia were helped by a movement program i.e. when they were allowed to move their reading scores increased (Reynolds et al, 2003).

Children with autism show reduced activation in the pre-frontal cortex, the area of the brain responsible for emotional regulation. This could explain why many children with ASD exhibit symptoms such as irritability, problems with delayed gratification, anxiety and tantrums.

FY 2012 Actual

FY 2013 Actual

FY 2014 Actual

FY2015 Actual FY16 Budget
Income Grants $‎ 7,500 $‎ 94,150 $‎ 77,083 $‎ 133,744 $‎ 150,000
Donations $‎ 45,400 $‎ 80,482 $‎ 89,232 $‎ 56,770 $‎ 85,000
Horse Sponsorship $‎ 6,900 $‎ 20,960 $‎ 51,139 $‎ 18,950 $‎ 68,000
Program Income $‎ 61,740 $‎ 60,893 $‎ 55,867 $‎ 45,478 $‎ 78,000
Clinic Income $‎ 9,270 $‎ 1,150 $‎ 8,000
Special Events Income (net costs) $‎ 15,327 $‎ 19,445 $‎ 22,462 $‎ 27,962 $‎ 60,000
Total Income $‎ 136,867 $‎ 285,200 $‎ 295,785 $‎ 284,054 $‎ 449,000
Expense Horse Related $‎ 26,733 $‎ 39,337 $‎ 57,978 $‎ 60,988 $‎ 67,000
Facilities and Equip. $‎ 37,707 $‎ 68,662 $‎ 74,127 $‎ 73,974 $‎ 75,000
Auto $‎ 9,919 $‎ 12,734.00 $‎ 7,139 $‎ 6,050 $‎ 25,000
Staff $‎ 53,423 $‎ 102,492 $‎ 120,846 $‎ 94,628 $‎ 210,000
Program $‎ 23,943 $‎ 12,413 $‎ 1,398 $‎ 11,870 $‎ 30,500
Administration $‎ 5,073 $‎ 8,205 $‎ 8,224 $‎ 20,696 $‎ 20,000
Fundraising $‎ 1,113 $‎ 3,794 $‎ 529 $‎ 2,500 $‎ 5,000
Total Expenses $‎ 148,489 $‎ 247,637 $‎ 291,457 $‎ 270,706 $‎ 432,500
Surplus (Deficit) $‎ (11,622) $‎ 37,563 $‎ 4,328 $‎ 13,348 $‎ 16,500

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