10 year old Q has freckles across the bridge of his nose. He’s tall for his age. People think he’s older.
He’s a “sensory seeker” and will press his body into tight spaces, walls, curved surfaces and into you. Last week, he was standing on something I was leaning against and suddenly, all 100+ pounds of him was standing on my shoulders.
He’s got a blissful sense of adventure and we get the chance to be part of it almost every week.
Q starts sessions with a “staff meeting.” Calling the meeting to order by pointing his Nerf sword, we discuss how the afternoon should proceed.
Yesterday, it was decided that one teen volunteer and two staff members would compete in a “cage match fight” while he, the fight commissioner, would ride around on his horse and tell us the rules.
“To the costume room with you!” He shouted. We marched to the room where we hold the riding helmets, the books and toys, and the ever important costume bins.
Holding costume elements up to Q, we asked him if he’d like to don a knight’s cape.
“Put it on that one.” He gestured to one of us.
While we found a riding helmet that would fit him, he outfitted us with Hawaiian leis, ballet tutus, a wizard hat, a grass skirt, a halloween table cloth that was to be worn either as a “cape or a turban.”
“This is the humiliation phase.” He told us. “I will humiliate you with these stupid costumes so that you will be angry enough to have a real fight.”
“Choose your weapons!” He proclaimed.
Becca snatched a book from the bookshelf. “My weapon is LITERATURE and KNOWLEDGE!”
I grabbed a paint roller on a 6’ extension arm. “My weapon is ART!”
Our teen volunteer has only been here a couple of times. She’s a brainy kid that just wants to be around horses. She was taking it all in as best she could.
“You need a weapon!” the commissioner told her.
She came out with an action figure and held it up.
Q looked at her, blinked twice and ordered her back to the costume closet. “Try again!”
Uncertain of what she’d done wrong, she looked at us – adults wearing grass skirts and wizard hats holding books and paint rollers. She almost panicked. We really are a strange bunch around here.
She came out holding a giant orange inflatable ball with a handle.
“Her weapon is PLAY – the power of PLAY!” we intoned.
The commissioner was pleased and the teen was relieved that she’d not failed a second time. This kid is going to go places in life – she’s super cool.
We put Q on his trusty horse and proceeded to the the battle ground (aka- the arena). From his horse walking circles around us, he ordered us to “fight, but don’t kill and no hitting in the head. Well, maybe in the head, but you have to be gentle about it.”
PLAY versus KNOWLEDGE went first. It was a good battle with PLAY swinging the giant orange ball wildly while KNOWLEDGE spun around spouting facts. Every minute or so, Q, the fight commissioner would demand that the fighters FREEZE and he would bestow a new rule.
“New Rule” is a common theme we invoke around here. By giving the child the power to direct, he learns how rules affect outcomes, level or skew the game. In psychologist jargon, we are presenting “Theory of Mind.” Without an understanding that others experience the world differently than you might, communication is difficult and isolation is crippling. Traditionally rules get taught by rules being imposed on a student. With autism, this rarely works and can cause the child to shut down – because it feels oppressive, because it triggers anxiety. Here, the autist sets and enforces the rules. The outcome is effective and refreshing for everyone.
The game went on and sometimes ART would prevail, but the showdown continued to be PLAY vs KNOWLEDGE. Eventually, both players were physically exhausted and, against the wishes of the commissioner, who, atop his horse continued to direct the battle – decided that they should make a pact – that PLAY without KNOWLEDGE got obnoxious and that KNOWLEDGE without PLAY was just boring.
Q recognized that his fighters were tired and decided that the final winner would be decided by one round of Rock, Paper, Scissors.
The girls laid down their weapons and squared off.
Round one; both rock. A tie.
Round two; both paper. Another tie.
Round three; both rock again! Tension mounted.
Round four; PLAY wins with a scissors on KNOWLEDGE’S paper!
There was dancing and celebration.
Q swung one leg over the horse sitting side saddle, placed his sword upon his lap. “Do you know who the supreme monarch of the hive is?”
“Of the hive?” Becca quipped “Well, that would be the queen bee – right?”
“Well, the queen is important, but you don’t know anything about Beezus…..”
Follow the child. Enjoy the adventure. Your life will be richer for it.
A talented special needs school administrator addressed a crowd of nervous grandparents.
“Your grandkids are potentially talented and it’s our job to bring that out. This school is a cocoon. They come in as caterpillars and emerge as butterflies ready to fly back into the world.”
The grandparents leaned in. They heard the words Potential and Talented and had visions of their grandkids with wings to fly.
But words matter – a lot.
If you think kids have potential for talent rather than already talented (because talent is innate – right?) then everything you do shifts.
Let me be clear – this is a passionate administrator who works bravely and with dedication.
If a doctor tells a family their child’s brain may never develop past the infant stage, that whole family’s life could be dictated by that statement. But, if the same professional said “we don’t know if he can recognize you, we don’t know if he understands language. But he might.”
It’s not false hope – it’s acknowledging the humanity of the patient.
What’s the disconnect?
Dignity: A fundamental belief in the humanity of a differently-abled person.
Always Assume Intelligence. You risk nothing and you could be bestowing the most precious gift a human can give another human. The gift of Dignity.
We are often asked “Why horses?”
I’ve wrested with whether my fascination with all things equine, the fascination I was supposed to grow out of – I might be foisting on our families in hopes of a miracle.
I’m a skeptic. I pour over journals for evidence-based studies on why horses elicit positive outcomes. I often toss anecdotes aside and look for charts and graphs on things like behavior reduction, oxytocin production, reduced aggressiveness and more.
Here’s the thing, a horse never sees “potential talent” in anyone. She sees you for exactly who you are and she offers you the Dignity of that. The Dignity to be scared, to be dis-regulated, to be curious, kind, or excited. The Dignity to be you.
A horse can’t project a notion of who you should, might or can be.
As herd animals, their survival depends on the ability to size up anyone and understand your role. Biologically, they understand children are vital and they react with some measure of protective care or a gentle nudge demanding independence. It’s not anthropomorphizing – it’s survival.
The moment another being looks at you and sees you for exactly who you are is the moment you start to blossom.
How much would you pay for a therapist who could accurately assess you in 30 seconds or less?
What’s our crazy idea to change the world?
We change the words. We lead by example – putting Dignity first – because every one of us at some point needs support and all of us deserve community. With our feet pointed toward Dignity, we may stumble and sometimes, we will fail – but change must come.
Soon, the notion “Always Assume Intelligence” will be the norm – not the exception. Dignity for everyone won’t be remarkable. The lives of families change profoundly and opportunities for everyone to realize human potential will bloom.
Challenge the words. It’s how we move forward.
The Revolution of Kindness marches on.
Sitting here on a sun dappled morning looking out over green hills and children and horses playing in the arena – I take a deep breath of gratitude for where and when I live.
At my feet is our 13 year old hound mix Tucker. He’s as devoted a dog as I’ve ever known in my life. He’s a quiet dog, and like I said, loyal to a fault. He’s sweet with the kids and loves to run and play. He’s safe with the horses and never bothers the cats. He’s also extremely anxious when left alone, a food hoarder, he buries things and he kills chickens.
My husband and I laugh about what a good dog he is – we adore him.
We know that if Tucker lived in the suburbs and was confined to the less than 110 acres he lives in now, if his family worked normal hours and left him alone for 40+ hours per week, he would be unmanageable. He would dig, chew, steal and bury food. He’d destroy furniture. He’d bark and almost certainly be aggressive to strangers. He’d be passed on to other families or medicated heavily or worse.
We use ex racehorses in our program. People worry that they are too fragile, too prone to be over-reactive, too tall, too fast. We remind them that racehorses are raised around humans from the first day of their life. They are constantly handled, managed, attended to by people.. Humans are a vital part of their survival plan and their tribe. No other horse in my experience is more keen to please humans than a properly handled ex racehorse. There are exceptions of course.
But, like the dog, we’ve managed the horses’ exercise schedule, diet and living situation to match their needs. We’ve planned our training exercises to bring out the best results and we are constantly re-evaluating our approaches as a team. As a result, we get co-operative, kind and responsive horses. If these same horses were locked in a box stall and ridden 3 to 4x per week for 40 minutes at a time, they would be anxious, fearful and some might become aggressive.
The key factor here isn’t that Square Peg has some magical lock on animal training. The key factor is Environment.
So what’s important for our most vulnerable students?
Homo sapiens are designed to move. We can outlast any species on the planet for long distance running. Our big brains need nourishment, sunshine and engagement. Our minds process information and emotions that are complex and dynamic through a mix of physicality and rest.
Why then do we demand that children and anyone trying to learn to digest information while being denied physical movement, sunshine and proper supports? Why are pervasive and maladaptive behaviors blamed on the child and not on the environment we’ve forced him to learn in? Why aren’t we looking at sleep and sleep quality before discussing a curriculum for a student?
A parent noticed the other day that the horse her son normally rides was much more receptive to being groomed. Truth is, he’d been turned out for the last few days with some of the other geldings. His movement, sensory and social needs had been met and Viola! His behaviors improved. Shocking!!
If what we are looking to do in the field of autism education is to find effective and cost efficient therapies to help clients navigate a disrupted sensory system – why aren’t we making damn sure that the sensory, social and physical inputs are being satisfied first?
Kudos to all the autism parents who spend every weekend hiking with their kids, taking them to the ocean, the train station, replacing the trampoline for the second time this year. When you need us, we have miles of coastal hills to climb, a score of kind animals to touch and press into and move with, a pond to paddle on, sand to roll in, water to splash, silly stories to listen to and laugh about.
When your IEP rolls around – question the environment your child is subjected to. Is it restrictive or does it allow his curiosity to blossom? Is the human environment about being heard or is it about listening? And most importantly – is there laughter in the space?
Our favorite stories are the ones where someone was thought useless, used up, not worthy and somehow, through trials, they proved themselves heroic.
King Arthur, the smallish adopted son, was called Wart – rose to be King.
Luke Skywalker, born poor on a desert planet leads the Resistance.
These are the heroes we adore.
A friend asked me why I do what I do. What makes me want to get up seven days a week and put in the hours and the effort required? I had to think about it.
I love horses and I love riding and I’ve been able to ride in some fantastic situations including:
- Busting out of the starting gate on a horse keen on winning.
- Galloping over the Sierra desert jumping tumbleweeds alongside 20 couple of hounds on a scent.
- Racing pell mell toward goal on a grass field chasing a polo ball.
- Sitting a rhythmic and perfect pirouette.
- Arching over an oxer on our way to another solid fence.
- Climbing aboard a quivering horse on his first backing.
Okay, so I’m a thrill junkie.
But nothing compares to what I do every day.
I get to play witness to the ultimate hero story – the story of unfolding potential. I orchestrate the growth and opportunities not just for slaugter-bound horses but for humans society wrote off as unworthy to explore their potential. I witness our families as they realize they are worthy of friendship. I facilitate the lending of the power and grace of an 1,100 lb. animal capable of running a two minute mile. I am present as people show themselves and their loved ones that they can learn, create, lead and be celebrated for their efforts.
Despite 30 years of daily effort as a rider, I’m not headed for the Olympics, I’m not up for an Eclipse Award for most winning jockey and I won’t be chosen for the US Women’s Polo team. But I’m riding with people I adore on horses I helped to bring to a calm understanding of quiet cues. That’s a rush I get every day.
What’s more, I get to mentor my talented staff as they make miracles happen for our families and for the horses they love.
Heroism is about growth and facing limitations and blossoming through them. I get to be in the presence of heroes daily. I get to watch our families snatch dignity from the jaws of a society that thought they were “less than.”
And that, is what makes me tick.
In a rare moment of reflection that is so vital to getting where we are going, I’m thinking back on Square Peg’s busiest summer yet.
We lost our darling Gigi. Not a surprise with her illness, but a change. Square Peg has never existed without that temperamental white mare who humbled me over and over and still delivered for anyone who truly needed her. As a friend said “not all strong women are human.” I miss her.
I’m reflecting on our kids. I was chatting with one boy yesterday after his ride. He was telling me about his dog and about the intelligence difference between dogs and rats and how rats have an extremely good survival instinct. The only thing significant about this exchange is that his summer school believed this boy was either non verbal or selectively mute. Proof that the right environment and a commitment to dignity (plus dogs, goats and amazing horses) draws out natural communication. I’m so grateful for the trust that our families extend to us here at the ranch.
I remember a sunny Saturday afternoon this summer – the staff had taken a gaggle of kids up to the pond and I sat in the arena with their parents. They were quiet and pensive. One mom started to open up “he got kicked out of school again.”
“Tell me what happened this time.” I met her pained eyes sincerely and in the background, we could hear the kids squealing with laughter 200 yards away. She started to tell me the story and then another mother started to laugh. The pained mom was taken aback – it really wasn’t funny she thought. She didn’t know if she needed to consider something drastic like a special boarding school. Then the third mom chimed in “I remember the first time my boy got kicked out of school.” And we all laughed. And we all shared our stories. And all the pain and isolation started to melt away and we realized that none of us were alone and that our kids were all just doing the best they could in a confusing world with some really arbitrary rules. And we laughed some more until our bellies hurt. And it was good.
I can’t say enough about our staff. Growing from just me and a couple of part time help to the thriving pack of smiling, joking, hard working and caring pack of seven we are today is a dream come true. Our staff’s dedication and energy are a constant source of joy for many – me included.
Volunteers are an essential part of what we do. For caring teens to put aside their busy lives to muck stalls, play with kids, walk sick horses and make Square Peg a haven for families and animals that deserve a second chance is nothing short of magic. I’m so grateful and tremendously proud of all of your heroic efforts. You don’t just show up – you bring your “A game” time and again.
Our landowners are rockstars. They trusted us to come into their family property with our herd of animals and boisterous humans. We are a tribe that can be a little hard to take….. With thoughtfulness and care, they have learned to appreciate our unconventional way of doing things. They didn’t have to welcome us into their beautiful and wild family space and I am deeply grateful that they have.
Our supporters responded to our call to help grow the program with trust and generosity that takes my breath away. From the Thoroughbred industry I served for so long to come back to Square Peg with appreciation and support is validation that amazes me. From the $10 donations that come through the internet across the country after the airing of Garvin Thomas’ NBC segment – to the matching grant opportunity from one of our original supporters – the family that wrote a check on the spot after a one hour visit because “your horses are all happy and that tells us what we need to know.” I’m humbled to the soles of my dusty boots.
I have to say something about our horses. Each day, they teach us something important. They teach us all about patience, about the value of innocence and a quiet ego. They teach us about generosity and the debilitating power of fear. They teach us about being and remaining present, about the beauty of play and how to revel in the power of a body in motion.
I was talking with a parent last night who was kindly thanking us for the space we have created for her son to grow and explore. I thought about all of the amazing advisors Darius and I have cultivated over these years and the decisions we made based on their sage examples. Decisions to create a culture and defend it fiercely. Decisions to focus on not just running a barn, but on starting a movement towards a better future and consciously deciding what we would cultivate.
Onward to Fall – a season of change and harvest.
Thank you to our entire community – families who have come and gone, volunteers, supporters, staff and to our pack of animals who teach us everyday. Team Quirky for the win!
Ironically, I was asked by an autism dad – a really thoughtful and kind autism dad “Does it work? Can you prove it?”
It’s a fair question – especially as a non-profit soliciting for donations and support. People have limited resources and they want to support programs with proof of real results.
I talked about measuring what matters as opposed to measuring what is easy and how complicated that all is. I cited studies about oxytocin and anecdotal evidence from families about improved sleep, reductions of maladaptive behaviors and the like.
But does it work?
Tell me some success stories.
These are the things people want to know and somehow, it irked me.
But it’s not fair that I’m annoyed. It’s my responsibility to help supporters and the community feel engaged in what is happening.
I sat with this pique. I stewed on why this logical question makes me cranky. Then I sat at the picnic table – the one that overlooks the arena – the one with goat poop on it because the darn goat loves to stand on it – the one with at least two dogs lying either under it or close by. And I listened to a parent tell me about her son learning to waterski and her fears about him aging out of services. I watched the kids in the arena playing with the horses who deserve a second chance.
Does it work?
Does anyone ask the baseball coach for the local all-stars “does baseball work?” Does anyone ask the Boy Scout leader “does it work?”
Does recreation work? Does play work?
Work. Work. Work.
A good portion of our lives is spent working – doing – earning for our families and for our advancement. If we are lucky we will take joy in our work. But recreation DOES work – by making our lives enjoyable – by letting us take pleasure in the movement of our physical bodies – by connecting us with others with similar interests – making friends, trying out new skills – of course it works!
I think what angers me is this notion that what we are trying to accomplish is to make someone “less autistic.”
Yes, we want to create skills to help an autistic person navigate a neuro-typical world and alleviate the more stressful factors of having a heightened anxiety response.
Of course we read eagerly about families that achieve breakthroughs in communication and behaviors through connecting in common interest. We live for those stories.
Focusing on an outcome for something designed to bring joy to someone denigrates our intention. The focus morphs to an intention to change someone – someone who might be perfect already.
Going to an art museum works because we see beauty and wonder and we get to see the world through the eyes of someone else. Kicking a ball back and forth with each other works because we focus part of our brain on the physicality and revel in each others prowess or lack of same. We’re actually learning math and physics at the same time, but that’s another story. Primarily, it’s FUN! Taking a walk on the riverfront with friends works because we see and engage both socially and with the water flowing past us. Bouncing on a trampoline works because it makes us giggle while a host of delicious chemicals rush through our brain and our proprioception systems re-boot. Recreation doesn’t just work – it’s essential to our well being.
Attaching an agenda to recreation because of a disability denigrates the freedom and the joy we all deserve as fellow humans.
I pose the question – why is it perfectly acceptable to recognize the value of recreation for non disabled people but for a disabled person, we want first to know if it “works?”
I asked an autistic friend her opinion on recreation and what she told me made a lot of sense. She said that it’s only recreation if you feel SAFE doing it. It’s valuable if YOU choose the level of risk – not others. Otherwise, it’s either terrifying or belittling.
This then makes the critical case for supported recreation for vulnerable populations. It’s Square Peg’s job to provide the supports so that each person feels safe enough to recreate. And that my friend – works.
In the circus that is my life, I found myself at my California dinner table sipping wine and eating chocolate with two world class horsemen – one from the famed halls of the Spanish Riding School in Vienna and the other an Argentine polo player who has played green fields from the sands of Brunei, to the vast stretches of Patagonia, over the cool fields of England…..
We talked of travel, and landscapes and weather. Mostly we talked of horses. It dawned on me as I watched these gentle men, both with hair streaked with gray, calluses on their hands and sun creases on their handsome faces that both had been brought up preserving the critical art of training a horse for war.
Both Classical Dressage and polo are dignified exhibitions of mounted soldiers practicing to defend their communities or attack others in the search for resources.
Christian is a specialist in the Airs Above The Ground – the ancient jumps and kicks that could kill a foot soldier and strike fear in entire regiments. Enrique’s beloved polo is a classic game of defending territory as a regiment and scoring wins. There’s tell of stories that the game was developed using the heads of enemies.
As we know, mounted war is a thing mostly of the past nowadays. High powered guns, tanks and now drones have replaced the awesome swift fierceness of a mounted military.
Both men are master teachers. This is extremely rare – to be able to teach both horses and humans. But I watched both tell stories of riders who blame the horse or are eager to replace the horse to get to their goals more quickly. I sit and breathe in their wisdom as they pound the table, leaning in to express that it takes years to train, not months or a seminar or a new bit. Despite the fact that their disciplines are vastly different, the breeds they prefer don’t match at all – they are of one mind that patience and a quiet mind are what train a horse.
The Spanish Riding School prances to delight crowds with their famed white stallions while polo is played in wealthy neighborhoods as spectators sip champagne and critique other attendees’ fashion choices.
If you saw either of these men ride and train horses – you would understand that it is an art. What then, is the future of these arts?
I’d like to believe that the ancient art of teaching a horse to carry us to war is now helpful in healing our souls.
By training a horse in soft collection – in understanding and the horse using his body to effortlessly carry us in harmony and in bravery – the horse connects us our selves through our dis-regulated senses. As this giant prey animal lends us his grace and beauty we rediscover our self worth and we take that generosity back out to our technology laden world. These masters show us through our horses that patience, clarity, humility and the ability to be fully present are the tools we need most.
The matron in me wants to keep them at my table – to feed them well and make them safe from having to teach people who will wear them out in their quests for an easy fix or needing to look a tormented horse in the eye and do what they can to help. That’s not possible of course and I sent them both off with a hug to their next teaching gigs – hopefully imbued with renewed spirits in finding soulmates in their relentless pursuit of equestrian art mastery.
As for me? I’m relishing every memory of connecting these Masters at my table and more importantly in the arena where they both served Square Peg horses and staff with wisdom and love.
Lucky – lucky me.
The character of the human, too, will find its expression in the training and performance of the horse.
The level-headed one becomes a master, the inspired one an artist, the correct one a controller, the violent one a subduer, the crafty one a conman. The faint-hearted one makes compromises, the timid one capitulates, the hot-tempered one becomes unfair, the malicious one a torturer, the melancholy one a trifler. The hasty one becomes frustrated, the impatient one becomes unhappy, the fool becomes complacent, the snob becomes a more or less happy boaster on his horse. The prudent one remains a student forever, even if he is a master; the sage, however, …?
The sage in the saddle is rarely encountered. He is recognizable by his extreme modesty, because he knows that no-one can solve all the riddles the horse presents to us – life is too short.”
(Udo Bürger, 1959)
What if I told you that every one of us has the knowledge, the training, the skills and the opportunity to relieve the world’s most crippling affliction?
This terrible condition is 100% treatable and reversible. It won’t require insurance coverage, legislation, staff meetings, specialists or any equipment.
You think I’m lying or exaggerating.
My argument isn’t supported with charts and graphs. I don’t have an advanced degree…..in anything. There’s no reason to listen to me.
What if I’m right?
In 2004, we started a non profit coupling outsider kids with failed and injured ex racehorses. The plan was that in taking care of each other – both would receive benefits.
It worked. We served homeless kids, trafficked kids, tough kids, shy kids, gay kids. There was connection to be sure.
But it was autism families, that kept finding us.
I told parents we weren’t therapists and each time, the parents exhaled and smiled. They had therapists. What they needed was one of two things:
A break from the everyday circus of treatment, advice and tantrums.
The possibility of a miracle.
So I started to study. Obsessively. I fan-girled Dr. Temple Grandin each time she did a talk. I read her books, the books by John Elder Robinson and more. I subscribed to tons of blogs by parents and scientists. All the while we did the work as scores of families made their way to Square Peg Ranch.
In 2009, I hit a wall. I was exhausted. Each week, I worked 70 hours for no pay. There was just enough money to cover the feed and one person to help. Managing volunteers, turning down horses needing homes, dealing with leases and landlords and looking up to see waves of autism families desperate for miracles or at least a break took it’s toll.
I was trying to make a “real difference.” As a teen, I dreamed of traveling the world, picking up the starving babies off the streets and feeding them. Instead, I was teaching HORSEBACK RIDING – an outdated, dangerous useless activity often associated with the white, landed gentry.
How was that going to change the world?
With 120,000 American horses going to slaughter plants every year, we could take in less than a dozen.
Was putting an autistic person on a horse even safe?
These are the things that ran through my head during sleepless nights.
Two things happened.
1. My board treasurer – a wise autism mom, sent me to southern California to do a training with an autism dad who made a documentary film and wrote a book about how his son connected to him and his world through horses. I didn’t want to go. I had it pegged as new age inspiration porn. I didn’t have the time or patience for it. But I really needed a break and a trip to Southern California meant connecting with a dear friend – so I went.
Once there, I learned WHY what we were doing was working. I learned why play and following the interest of the autistic person was important and WHY setting up an environment where both the horses and the families felt calm was more important than traditional therapeutic riding exercises. I asked him what I should do when parents interrupt the session or talk over the top of the instructor. The father who adored his autistic son answered me not as a clinician or as a horseman but as a parent of an autistic child. He made it crystal clear that serving the FAMILY and trusting the FAMILY about how best to serve an autistic student was the KEY to what we were doing. I needed to turn my thinking upside down. The long drive home gave me a chance to ponder this and realize how rare and vital it was.
2. As I continued to beat myself up about what my role in life would be – I started studying the people I most admired. I wanted to understand the motivation and the skills of the people who were making real social change. Early in my research I found a quote from a true hero serving the poorest of the poor. It changed my perspective. It changed my life.
The greatest poverty is not hunger. The greatest poverty is loneliness and a feeling of not being useful.” Mother Teresa of Calcutta.
Loneliness. It’s in our neighborhoods, our schools, our churches, even our families. We can pick up the phone, reach out a hand, smile with eye contact, or forgive someone in our lives right now.
Check in, send a card, introduce yourself, knock on the door, extend an invitation. Force yourself to listen to understand, not listen to respond.
Feeling lonely yourself? Think of someone more shut-in than you are and visit. You won’t have to think long. I promise.
The other day at the ranch, an autism mom acted to save her child from injury (not on a horse). She responded bravely and selflessly. She was injured in her heroic act and we attended to her injury while attending to her son. Her child was triggered by the event and started screaming. His high pitched screaming pained the mother deeply as it brought up every insecurity that her son would not be able to make friends and exist in a world where she wasn’t constantly supporting him. You could see on her face that felt she needed to “pull it together” and ignore her injury to attend to her child. She started to panic that we might make her go to the emergency room which would send her autistic son into total sensory overload and more screaming. She felt completely alone and isolated.
With the help of a snack and a drink, he calmed down. We attended to her injuries, drove her son home and then took her to the hospital. Luckily, her injuries were not severe. In their time of need, we were able to support her as a community – to attend to her son’s important and essential emotional needs and to let her know that she was connected, needed and not alone.
So here it is – your antidote to all the bad news in the world. News that the world’s greatest poverty is 100% treatable. Every one of us has the skills, the training and the opportunity to cure it.
We all need some good news lately. As Scoop Nisker used to say “if you don’t like the news – go out and make some of your own.”
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.”
In 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.”
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.
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.”
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
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.
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
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
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
Already raised <$25,000> January 2016 (The Miner Foundation of Orem Utah)
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?
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.”
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…”
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.”
“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.”
“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.”
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).
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).
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).
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|