Understanding and Being Understood – a Journey

Que paso? What happened?

Lo que pasa? What happens?

Que pasando? What is happening?

Que pasa?  What’s up?

About five months ago I downloaded Duolingo, a free app on to my phone to learn Spanish.

Duolingo works like a video game and the learning curve, even for a non gamer like myself, was smooth.

The language learning however, is not smooth for me.

Despite the fact that Duolingo has great science of learning behind it – despite knowing I can breeze through a lesson in five minutes – despite the fact that I live in California and have been traveling to Mexico regularly – this learning comes hard.

Really hard.  I’ve not missed a day of practicing. I regularly exceed my daily goals for Duolingo lessons, oftentimes by a factor of three or four times the daily goal – I’m struggling.

Yesterday, our shoer, the world’s nicest person and a native Spanish speaker drove on to the farm.  My plan was that I was going to greet him in Spanish and use my Spanish skills for every exchange possible.  After five months of serious study I was ready.

I opened my mouth to say “Buenos dias Jose. Feliz Navidad!”

What came out was nothing.

I started to sweat, my heart was racing.

I tried again.

Nothing. Nada

Jose looked up and greeted me warmly – in English and we chatted away in my native language.

I thought about how well he spoke my language and how, after months of study, I couldn’t  do an elementary greeting in his. I could of course – but panic got in the way.

The obvious reason I’m studying Spanish  is that most humans speak more than one language and I’m ashamed that I never acquired this skill. Living in California, Spanish is accessible, help is plentiful and there are lots of opportunities to listen and develop skills. I can help more autism families if I’m fluent in the second most spoken language in the state. Being a professional horse person, Spanish skills can be handy.

But the real reason I’ve taken on this task: Compassion.


Learning a complex and nuanced skill. One that does not come easily to me. Knowing that I’ll have to work harder than the average person and knowing that I will fail often and publicly – knowing that I will sound unsure, possibly stupid and that I will have difficulty making myself understood.  I will stumble. Some days, I feel like I’m really understanding the lesson and other days – it’s all gibberish.

Knowing that it may cause me to panic and want to run away from a conversation – knowing that I won’t be able to lead a conversation for a long time – if ever….  This connects me to our students.

Autism is primarily an anxiety disorder.  When we are anxious, our ability to communicate decreases or even evaporates – we can’t express ourselves – we can’t be heard. Words jumble and what comes out is not what we’d planned. We get frustrated, even angry.  Angry at ourselves, at the Universe.

This morning, I had an imaginary conversation in Spanish with a friend.  Words flowed from me easily, I found the verbs I needed in my memory and the articles felt natural. I wonder if some of our less verbal students have these imaginary conversations? Exchanges where they are heard and understood. Where the crippling grip of anxiety is released and they can say what they think to those they need to understand.

I will keep trying. Seguire intentando.

One of my mentors – Dominique Barbier told me (in reference to horse training) “you can teach a monkey 100 words and think that you are a great monkey trainer – but you haven’t even tried to learn to speak monkey. So what does that make you?”  My intention for 2018 is to learn to understand the languages of others. 


An Open Letter to the Staff of Square Peg Ranch

Yesterday just before dinner I got a text from a little boy. He was excited to tell me that one of the kids in his school, a child who doesn’t speak at all at school,  said “hi” to him. The school thinks the child is non-verbal. This boy knew that the silent child spoke because he knows that they both  attend weekly sessions at the ranch. He’d heard that this child  has rich conversations with his favorite people and animals at the ranch.

This is not insignificant. It’s important. It’s also important to recognize that both children know the significance of the effort.

Dr. Temple Grandin told us years ago that the power of the barn and the horses when she was a teen had less to do with the horses and more to do with the fact that it was “the first place she made friends.“

Like I said, we are on to something. Something very special. By adhering to our core values of acceptance, kindness,  creating and fiercely protecting community, follow the child and cultivating curiosity – miraculous things happen regularly around here.

I ask you, the core providers at SquarePegs Ranch, to take a moment and appreciate the value and the real difference you make in the lives of our families. Some days are easier than others. As we grow and expand, let us never forget these values and let us support each other in the hard days so we continue to lead by example.

We are breaking new ground here. I am so proud of you.

What if “love is the answer?”

#TeamQuirky for the win.

In gratitude and respect,

What used to be boring Saturdays……

This essay, written by Aaron Foley was submitted to the TCA Youth Essay Contest.

Thoroughbred Charities of America Youth Essay Contest

SquarePeg Foundation-A perfect Sanctuary for Horses & Humans

“…….the problem with pounding a square peg into a round hole isn’t that the hammering is hard work – it’s that you’re destroying the peg.”  (Paul Collins)

Dear Thoroughbred Charities of America Board Members,

My name is Aaron and I am 10 years old. I am writing to tell you about the most amazing place on earth. “Squarepeg” in Half Moon Bay, California. Like many other kids with learning and coping disabilities, I was really struggling to find true “happiness” in my life.  I had always connected with animals, as they are non-judgmental and always forgiving; horses, cows and dogs being my favorites. We cannot have an animal in our place, so my mom found out about Squarepeg through my therapist at school. We did some research and loved the fact that its tagline was “Team Quirky” and its mission was to connect people and animals who don’t quite fit in. Its “home” to retired horses and we go to the Square Peg because the horses need us. We went to check it out and it truly is everything you would imagine a dream world would be is there a Horse-land (minus the unicorns according to my little sister).

What used to be boring Saturdays are now fun family day trips where we all go and enjoy the peaceful environment that is filled with the most gentle retired horses and caring humans. They humans have learned well from their animal friends and are extra understanding, patient, and kind. My parents used to hover around me nervously and now they see how good I am with the horses and how gentle they are with me, they go visit their favorite horses and I am free to be me!

My favorite horse is Ace, I like him the best, he is a total ham (a little like myself). He tries to eat me whenever I sit next to him, he really loves it when I bring him treats. When we arrive at Squarepeg, I immediately run to visit Ace, then sometimes I ride Ace around the arena.  Did I already mention how much Ace likes to eat a lot of food? he is super friendly and my pet horse.

I have been going to the Squarepeg for 3 years now and it always makes me excited to visit. As we drive there, I feel the excitement building in my tummy and I cannot wait to arrive. I feel welcome and accepted by the horses and the staff.

I know they do not care that I cannot hold a pencil or ride a bike. But, I can ride a horse and how cool is that! Sometimes at school when I am feeling down, I think about Squarepeg and our next visit and it helps me to cope that day. 

I would like to invite you to visit Squarepeg as I think you need to see it for yourselves to believe how fantastic it is. I would be so excited to win this competition for Squarepeg so they can do even more for kids and horses that don’t fit into the right “hole”. By the way, I read this essay to Ace and he tried to eat me in appreciation.


6,000 years ago, man asked the horse not just for his flesh for food, but for his obedience in our quest for land and power. The horse delivered.

Two centuries ago, we began to record and plan the Master Race of horse.  A horse imbued with all the qualities we hold dear – strength, fortitude, courage, determination and grace. We asked the horse to show us these things in contests that might take his life – and the horse delivered.

We saddled the horse with our hopes and dreams – we celebrated his Glory as if it were our own and when he disappointed us, we turned our backs and looked forward to a new generation that might again deliver that thrill that shakes our deepest souls.


“Thoroughbreds” by Louis Icart

We glorified him in ways he didn’t understand.

To say that the horse doesn’t understand Triumph is to undermine his nature and the dignity he deserves and the sacrifices he makes.

The horse finds comfort in  safety and he will always recognize and honor kindness. He knows that gentleness may come from strength or from innocence.

He asks silently for fresh air, room to move, a tribe.  If in addition, he could

Wind Lady with Black Horse by Luis Icart

receive friendship – he  lends us his back and harnesses himself to our hopes  to be able to rise above the terra firma as he bears us, albeit more slowly, toward Glory.

We passed the inferior, the wounded and the meek horses on in hopes that they might touch the humans who society deems inferior, wounded or meek.

Without complaint, the horse delivered.

The horse is my conduit on my path to God.  Whenever I make strides, not towards greatness, but toward humility and gratitude, the horse is there before me, waiting to deliver me to my next destination on the path to being awakened.

More Things I Should Have Said

Yesterday, we filmed a reality show at the ranch – four teens in expensive clothing

“Giving back” by volunteering.

I was dubious, my staff and I watched the show and saw vapid, handsome, entitled teens prancing and hair tossing. I met with our staff and they were ready to defend with their lives the dignity of our kids and the safety of our horses.

Watching anxiously just outside the camera’s view we let our kids and our horses take over

It was good.

Very good.

There were chase games and capturing games and our kids demanding stories about unicorns. There were piggyback rides and it all spontaneously ended with a dance party in the arena with tutus and hula hoops and dogs. The teens in fancy clothes were laughing and running and serving and falling on the ground in their expensive threads. They messed up their hair, they kissed the dogs on the nose and they opened their hearts to our families.

I have no idea what the camera saw. I don’t have control of what the directors will cut and what the tween watchers will see and understand – but what I witnessed was our quirky kids bringing out the very best in others.

And it was good.

Very good.

At the end, several of us shared a meal and laughs. We recalled some stories and I absolutely must write this memory down:

Quirky Kid #1: “my sister has William’s Syndrome. Do you have William’s Syndrome?

Quirky Kid #2 “No.”

Quirky Kid #1 “Do you have autism?”

Quirky Kid #2 “No.”

Quirky Kid #1 “Well, what do you have?”

Quirky Kid #2 thinks for a minute and answers “Barbies, I have Barbies.  Do you want to play with them?”

File this under “Things I should have said”

When we encounter something strange or different – something we don’t understand – at first there is Rejection, and Avoidance.

With education, we develop Tolerance.

With love and patience and a little luck, this morphs into Acceptance.

But where the magic happens – what Square Peg strives to build in every interaction we engage in – the rare transformative space – is Celebration.

Celebrating the differences in each of us – letting our quirky side show – finding joy and innocence and supporting each other with Celebration and the freedom to be your most unique and most precious self.

It’s an important message to send to awkward tweens watching a reality show where everyone is well dressed and attractive.

But I failed.  Because I didn’t think to say this. It came to me in the early hours of the morning of a sleepless night. I spent all week thinking how I’d manage the message. I’d get two minutes to talk to these reality TV stars about what Square Peg is all about and hope it would translate onto the screen.  I penned it out – I reached out to colleagues and even to our Social Media. I failed to get the message together.

But did I?

Turns out – our kids, horses, dogs and goats, our staff and volunteers didn’t have to tell them – they showed them.

And it was good.

Very good.

The episode will air in early September – I will keep you posted.

Peace out

Will You?

Will you gift $1,000,000


Because it’s important.


The pain caused when autism and mental illness are viewed as a human that needs fixing is not just toxic, it’s deadly.  Deadly for the autist, for their family and for our communities. A “fix” is not needed – support is.

Families are suffering from isolation and shame. These families suffer less from their loved one’s condition – but more from their community’s inability or unwillingness to accept and support them. Support and care for these families saves lives.

We are changing the words and the outlook while the science catches up. We are changing the words and the perception that meltdowns are viewed more like seizures – something the autist desperately, so desperately, wants to stop but as with a seizure – cannot. We are building the support staff that will weave this change into our social fabric.

Real resilience emerges when someone is authentically supported.  Support can be the humility to simply “be there” in storms of dis-regulation and rejoice in the joys of sharing  this planet and acknowledge the differences that constitute honest humanity.

Radical acceptance – Its effects are magic. The transformation of a soul who feels “less than” but is through acceptance; seen, heard and celebrated is the most profound change of all.

Your $1,000,000 preserves a space where radical acceptance and celebration of dignity brings the contagious peace that is the only hope for our world.

Is there anything more important?

Donate. Do it now. We promise to make you proud you did.

With your help the revolution of kindness marches on.

UPDATE:  If this link doesn’t convince you that this entire way of thinking about autism and behaviors needs to be completely disrupted – then we can’t imagine what would. If we don’t change this culture – who will? the time is NOW.  Join us. 

The Nature of Support aka: I Hate Housekeeping

Doing housework is where I get some of my best ideas.  You’d think I’d clean house more often  – but I don’t.

My avoidance is irrational. I hate cleaning house.

Cleaning today I was grouchy. I was thinking ugly thoughts about what I deserve and who is disrespecting me by my cleaning the floor on a beautiful day.

I told you it was irrational.

I was also thinking about some of the folks in our Square Peg community. Yesterday was a rough day. Lots of folks needed attending to. Whenever I gave someone my time, I felt I was failing three others.

I got thinking: What is it to feel supported?

My mind went back to housekeeping. What about my needs? Look at Cinderella –  cleaning floors while everyone else is at the ball. What about support for me?

Irrational. We covered that.

I had this thought – if I had the extra cash, should I seek a therapist?  Or, and this is where it gets weird – or a housekeeper?

Having someone to do the deep cleaning makes me feel supported.

I’m not bragging of superior mental health – it’s about the nature of support.

I dialogued with a mom yesterday about her isolation and fear for her child’s future and the lengths she goes to provide an environment where he can thrive.  I think about the young adults in our network that are aging out of services. I think about our brilliant kids who aren’t thriving in school and why.

How do we define who gets supports and who doesn’t?

There is the larger picture of the Dignity of support.

If I hire a housekeeper to help with the things I’m struggling with – and she makes it clear that my failure as a housekeeper is “so sad” then I feel like a jerk and unworthy and a loser. I don’t feel supported.

If she ran around my house telling me that if I just tried harder, I could wash windows as well as anybody – I’d have grounds to fire her. Why is it okay for a therapist, a tutor or a doctor to treats us or our most vulnerable children the same way?  With pity or contempt – we are not truly supported and no matter how talented or expensive the therapist is or how scientifically backed the method might be – we always feel like a “lesser than.” The supporter is just raising themselves up on the shoulders of the people they say they are are supporting and the client, while they might feel served – does not feel supported.

Dignity.  It changes the lens we use when we support someone and how we are supported.

“The greatest poverty is not hunger. The greatest poverty is loneliness and a feeling of not being wanted.” Mother Theresa

“I hope you don’t mind the dog-hair.” Joell Dunlap

The Real Experts – Education from an Autists’ Perspective

Creating an Autism-Friendly Educational Environment

By Isabelle Frances Morris

author Isabell Frances Morris and Rupert Isaaccson

  My journey with autism up until now begins and ends with horses. Watching a documentary about a young Autistic boy named Rowan who found healing in horses, I couldn’t help but see some of myself in this preschooler. The next day, sitting in a therapy session, my therapist brought up the movie saying, “there are a lot of things that remind me of you.” That was when I began looking into autism in earnest. Six months after this happenstance, I walked into an office in the middle of a suburban neighborhood on a Saturday, with a stack of papers in my hand—documents from as far back as 2000, as well as my own personal notes. After a few hours of tests, evaluations, histories, and endless questions, the examiner told me she didn’t “see it;” the ensuing meltdown probably helped my case. One impatient week later, a thick manila envelope arrived with a fifteen-page report detailing my idiosyncrasies enclosed. The conclusion: I’m Autistic. This formally confirmed what I’d felt—known—watching this four-year-old melt down. Instead of experiencing the confusion, anger, or grief many parents of newly diagnosed children feel, for me the diagnosis brought relief and brand new understanding of myself. I no longer thought there was something “wrong ” with me. Everything finally made sense.

Rowan’s dad, Rupert, a journalist by trade, produced the Horse Boy documentary that follows his family’s autism learning curve. I am far from being the only one who has benefitted from Rupert’s journey. In fact, this home-movie-on-steroids evolved into a promising alternative education model for Autistic children called Horse Boy Method. As its name suggests, Horse Boy Method uses horses to facilitate the teaching of Autistic children. Through research I hope to answer the question, “how are Autistics learning?” Further, I aim to learn how the Horse Boy Method came to be and why Rupert—who has no education or psychology background—was

so successful. To that end, I will first discuss what autism is. Next, I will explore Rupert’s path to creating the Horse Boy Method of teaching. From there I will turn my attention to the current educational models in both traditional mainstream and special education programs. Finally, I will compare and contrast Rupert’s approach to education with these current systems, and ask how Rupert’s journey can serve as a model of how we might look at education differently.

According to the American Psychological Association, autism spectrum disorder is defined as “the most severe developmental disability. Appearing within the first three years of life, autism involves impairments in social interactions—such as being aware of other people’s feelings—and verbal and nonverbal communication” (APA, 2017). In order to diagnose someone with autism, practitioners use the criteria in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual fifth edition (DSM-V). The DSM-V criteria include: “deficits in social-emotional reciprocity,” “deficits in nonverbal behavior… [e.g.] abnormalities in eye contact,” “restricted, repetitive patterns of behavior, interests, or activities,” “stereotyped or repetitive motor movements,” “insistence on sameness,” and “hyper- or hyporeactivity to sensory input” (CDC, 2013). In addition to the formal medical definitions above, many in the Autistic community have a slightly different yet parallel definition. The Autistic Self-Advocacy Network provides the following definition on its website: “Autism is a neurological variation that occurs in about one percent of the population and is considered a developmental disability.” This perspective holds autism is a difference, not a deficit. In her book, Autism: What Does It Mean to Me?  Catherine Faherty refers to it as “autism spectrum difference” (2014). I include so many examples because autism is a complex constellation of traits and an understanding of what autism is, and isn’t, is necessary in order to understand the arguments in this paper. Most people assume “the spectrum” is a linear one from “not very Autistic” to “super Autistic.” Another overly simple yet incredibly popular way of talking about the spectrum is labeling Autistics as either “high-functioning” or “low-functioning.” These functioning labels carry significant weight in determining education placement of Autistic children. However, as these many characteristics demonstrate, this dichotomous way of thinking is inadequate and damaging.  A better way to conceptualize the autism spectrum is by using the metaphor of a color wheel in which each color is a different trait, and one’s place on the spectrum is a unique blend of each (Burgess, 2016).


While this may seem like just semantics, understanding autism in this way informs approaches to education. This visualization calls attention to the fact Autistic individuals have varied strengths, abilities, learning styles, challenges, and required supports— just as neurotypical children do. Therefore, the research presented in this paper is not intended to be a prescriptive, one-size-fits-all approach to education. Instead, I seek to highlight pitfalls of our current educational paradigm while presenting potential alternative ways of viewing education.

When beginning this research, I went straight to the source and contacted Rupert. During our conversation, Rupert gave an important insight into why he thinks what he does works. He told me, “It doesn’t work because I’m a clever neurotypical.” Instead, Rupert let his Autistic son call the shots. Letting go of preconceived agendas, Rupert simply followed Rowan around and learned from him. Although Rupert grew up training horses, bringing Rowan around horses wasn’t his idea. In fact, he’d be keeping Rowan away because he didn’t think he’d be safe around them. No, Rowan started the whole thing. One day Rowan bolted and threw himself on the ground under a neighbor’s horse, Betsy. Rupert noticed Betsy showing submissive behavior, so he followed Rowan’s lead and put him on her back. On the back of a horse became the place where Rowan’s meltdowns stopped and he began to use expressive verbal language. From the very beginning, Rupert let Rowan take the reins and learned from him. I believe realizing that he didn’t have all the answers—or even a few of them—and approaching Rowan as the expert on autism was critical to Rupert’s success, and the success of Horse Boy Method.

It is this deference to Autistic individuals as the autism experts that has allowed the Horse Boy Method to benefit so many on the spectrum. In the autism world, this is a novel, even radical, idea. However, I would argue that it shouldn’t be. As Rupert learned what worked and what didn’t for his son, a more formalized Horse Boy Method emerged. The guiding principles of the Horse Boy Method are: set up an environment to reduce stress, allow children to move and explore their environment, teach through “special interests,” and learn from the child. Three things must be in place before anyone can be ready to learn, neurotypical or not: proper sensory input, human environment, and physical state. Think about how hard it is to concentrate if it’s super cold in the classroom, or the class is right before lunch and you’re starving. Multiply that times twenty-three and you have the autistic experience.

Setting up an environment free from sensory triggers and stressors is the imperative first step. Without it, the Horse Boy Method would not be successful. Learning cannot happen when the body is under stress, so even the best, most empirically backed educational strategies fail without the proper environment. When the brain reacts to a perceived threat, blood is directed away from areas responsible for higher-level thinking, the frontal cortex, to the primitive regions that respond to fear and initiate fight or flight instincts. This biological process happens in all humans, but Autistics experience this fight-or-flight mode more often, more intensely, and need longer recovery than neurotypical counterparts thanks to a heightened cortisol response (Spratt et al., 2012). Therefore, when teaching Autistics, a low-stress environment is key. What does this environment look like? As far as possible this is in nature. Typical classrooms are filled with sensory triggers—fluorescent lights, scratchy uniforms, the smell of Expo markers, hard chairs, and 20 other kids’ pencils writing. Because we lack the ability to filter out the unimportant background sensory “noise,” we are prone to being overloaded with input. Our brains perceive this as danger and respond with cortisol. So not only do overstimulating environments disrupt our focus and attention, but there is a biological process precluding learning. Because other people’s bodies don’t react this way, and physiological

stress markers are invisible without specific tests, it can be easy for educators and parents to just assume that the child “isn’t applying themselves.” One way to mitigate the impact of sensory stress is to create a sensory-friendly environment, which for many Autistics is outside because our specific sensory triggers are largely absent in the natural environment. While I’m speaking generally, it is important to keep in mind this is not true for every person, or always true for someone. Outdoors is a general trend, but to make this really work, the system must be flexible enough to accommodate individuals’ sensory needs. I had the opportunity to visit a local Horse Boy practitioner named Joell who explained to me how she accommodates sensory differences. Joell keeps plenty of extra jackets, blankets, ice packs and hats on hand so that each individual can be as comfortable in the environment as possible. The usually fixed outdoor environment becomes less rigid with these accommodations. 

Although the physical environment is an important component it is not the only aspect of the environment that matters. The attitudes and expectations of parents, practitioners, and volunteers heavily contribute to the level of safety the clients feel. While Autistics can have trouble putting words to feelings or knowing what they’re feeling, we many times intensely feel the emotions and energy of those around them. If teachers or parents are stressed, we’ll likely feel and react to it tenfold. The majority of Joell’s herd is made up of rescues from the racetrack or other careers; two horses are missing an eye, and all of the horses are at Square Peg ranch because they didn’t fit in somewhere else. The children Joell works with spend most of their lives in situations where they are the odd one out. At the ranch, they can connect to horses that are also lovable “misfits.” In talking to Joell, she made it clear that there were no expectations here. This was evidenced as a boy dressed like Luke Skywalker ran by. Joell told me stories about the time she ran after one boy all the way up into the hills, about the time one girl wanted to go faster and tried to get the horse to do it even though Joell had said no. The most miraculous part of all this is the unique acceptance Joell and the volunteers have for all who come to Square Peg. Joell also told me the little boy used to throw his helmet off the hill and the little girl had the diagnosis of oppositional-defiant disorder. Reactions or diagnoses like these tend to cause people to step back from these kids. Not Joell. She leans in. When she spoke of both children, she made sure to tell me how much she loved these kids. I’m emphasizing the human environment because it is often overlooked and we Autistics can be highly sensitive to it. Because autism is a manifestation of a disrupted nervous system, we often have trouble self-regulating actions and emotional states. Attempting to fit into the expectations of acting or looking “normal” is a huge tax on brain capacity, and the sense that we’re failing only makes self-regulation harder. By creating a space where not only children can be children, but they are fully allowed to look, act, and be Autistic, all of that energy being poured into fitting into others’ expectations can instead be harnessed for learning. 

If all of this talk about horses sounds different from our current approaches to education, it’s because it is. In my discussion of traditional education, I am going to focus on the public school system because it serves the majority of children and is also most likely to be home to the more disadvantaged Autistics who don’t have the means for alternative specialty education programs. My discussion will be broken down into two parts, mainstream education and special education.

Traditional mainstream education is the most prototypical form of education. This type of education conjures images of desks in rows and memorizing times tables by rote. This was also my experience with education, not being diagnosed until the age of 19. Looking only at academic achievement, I was a perfect match to this school model that values verbal intelligence almost exclusively. Additionally, many things were easy for me because of my Autistic brain. Memorizing, logical reasoning, reading/writing, and pattern recognition required very little effort for me because of the way my brain is wired. Indeed, in many ways I benefited from this system that catered to my strengths. Looking at this metric alone, people tend to bestow upon me the “high-functioning” non-compliment. However, it also caused an enormous amount of boredom, unnecessary stress, and alienation. Throughout elementary school I asked my teachers to give me more work because I was bored; I only very rarely received differentiation. Content didn’t regularly cause me stress the way the environment did. Being asked to answer a question without having time to prepare a response terrifies me still. A room filled with posters or sitting by the noisy fish tank quickly overwhelmed me, often almost to the point of tears—as a senior in high school. An eighteen year old on the verge of tears because of the sound of a fish tank would likely be labeled “low-functioning.” Clearly Autism is much more complicated than these functioning labels allow for. Rather than educational difficulties, the most frustrating experiences were social in nature and recognizing I was different. I frequently corrected teachers and couldn’t understand why they reacted the way they did. Why did everyone always think I was being critical? I was just trying to be helpful.

I presented my history with mainstream education above as a case study. This is not meant to be representative of all Autistic’s experiences although many may identify with aspects of it because of our shared neurology. Because of the Individuals with Disabilities in Education Act, better known as IDEA, children are entitled to an education in public schools even if that means that the school must make accommodations for them. This federal law guarantees students education in the “least restrictive setting” that is appropriate for them, with mainstream classrooms considered the least restrictive setting possible (All Education Schools). For children who have an autism diagnosis, mainstream education can be tailored to their needs, to an extent, through an IEP. Examples of accommodations include using visual schedules, incorporating sensory activities during the day, providing small group instruction, facilitating communication through alternatives to verbal speech, limiting distractions, and many, many other adjustments depending on the individual’s needs (Wright, 2001).

Because of IDEA and its guaranteed access to education in the least restrictive setting, there is emphasis on mainstreaming as an end goal. In addition to the accommodations listed above, a common “treatment” either pursued by parents outside of school or provided in some form in schools themselves is Applied Behavioral Analysis (ABA). This therapy is routinely prescribed for Autistic individuals and is almost always the only option covered by insurance. Parents and schools use this as a method to get children ready for a “normal” classroom. Encouraging pro-social behavior often means disallowing a child to say “no,” not a great strategy for teaching social skills. DR. Ivar Lovass created ABA in the 1980’s. Children typically receive anywhere from 10 to 40 hours of therapy a week. In reference to a study Lovaas conducted in 1987, the Lovaas center reports, “the outcomes indicated 47% of children (i.e., 9/19) became indistinguishable from their peers or “best outcome,” many were able to have their “autism” label removed.” Two pervasive ideas in ABA are those of “quiet hands” and “table ready.” “Quiet hands” refers to the tendency of Autistics to flap, flick, and in general move our hands as a mode of communication, emotional expression, or self-regulation. ABA believes that in order to be successful in a mainstream environment, this must be suppressed. “Table ready” essentially entails sitting still and looking like your non-autistic peers. These may seem like good goals, but they are foolhardy. Because autism is a neurotype, if you are born Autistic, you will be Autistic forever. And if a child is never able to be mainstreamed, that represents a  “failure.” ABA’s own theory and methods undergird its uselessness. ABA is little more than compliance training, and “quiet hands” and “table ready” are euphemisms for “sit down and shut up”. Educators and therapists often express frustration that Autistic children don’t follow directions or respect boundaries. But if the child is not respected, if their “no” never means “no,” is it any wonder they don’t listen to yours? 

Recognizing this, educators are beginning to take a different approach to dealing with Autistic students in their mainstream classrooms. Instead of attempting to fit the Autistic kid into a set system, some teachers are adapting the system to the kid. This is the same philosophy behind the Horse Boy Method. The book, Teaching Children with Autism in the General Classroom (2009), includes guidance on modifications to the physical classroom as well as teaching strategies. As discussed above, creating the right environment is critical to the success of Autistic students. Some suggestions provided in the book are: create “boundaries to segment different work areas in the classroom,” minimize visual clutter, reduce the use of fluorescent lights, and consider the child’s needs when assigning their seat (Spencer & Simpson, 2009).  Other interventions mentioned were visual schedules, established routines, peer buddies, and simplified directions. One teacher in the “Case Study” section reported that the adaptations he had made—being “more structured and consistent with my class procedures, routines, and expectations”—had benefited all of his students and made his class run smoother (p.42-43). This last point may be the incentive teachers need to do the work up front of creating an environment conducive to learning for Autistic students, rather than rigidly expecting conformity from exceptional students. 

Educational placement (mainstream vs. special education classroom) is a huge topic of debate. Research of efficacy of different placements has been largely inconclusive (Hocutt, 1996). One reason studies have failed to produce conclusive results is the diversity not only among exceptional students, but also in classroom implementation of strategies. Educating students with disabilities is too complex an issue to apply a one-size-fits-all model in which we assume that mainstream is always better than special education, or vice versa. Even with adaptations, some individuals will need more support than a mainstream classroom can provide. This is where special education programs come into play.

Special education is a broad term that groups together many different practices. Special education includes part-time attendance in a resource room, education in a self-contained special ed classroom, or in a separate school altogether (Hocutt, 1996). The benefits of special education include smaller class sizes and teachers and aides with more familiarity with a given disability and specialized training. Proponents of special education also cite higher self-esteem (among students with certain disabilities), peers at the same developmental level, and lower dropout rates. In her literature review, “Effectiveness of Special Education: Is Placement the Critical Factor?” Amy Hocutt comes to two important conclusions in regards to this question. Firstly, she finds, “the interventions that were effective in improving academic outcomes for students with disabilities required a considerable investment of resources” (p. 97). This is likely unsurprising to most. Secondly, Hocutt concludes, “the research does not support inclusion for all students with disabilities” and successful interventions feature a “case-by-case approach to decision making” (p.97).

For all of the conflicting reports on best practices and difficulties in educating students with disabilities in a traditional education model, the current system also has strengths. One major strength is its accessibility. Because of the Individuals with Disabilities in Education Act, students are guaranteed education that meets their needs. Services like occupational therapy and speech and language services can be provided through public schools. A second advantage is the volume of research conducted on traditional methodologies. While data may be conflicting, researchers have set out to measure almost every variable of educational attainment.

While newer approaches to education lack decades worth of research to validate them, neuroscience is beginning to take an interest in them. Opponents of alternative model of education denounce them as “new age,” not empirically validated, and all a placebo. However, slowly research into how the brain learns is emerging to validate the anecdotal evidence. One area of interest is the link between vestibular pathways and learning. The vestibular system is a sensory system that provides information about the “angular and linear acceleration of the head in three dimensions” (Hitier et al, 2014). Research thus far has yielded conclusions that the vestibular system plays a part in cognition, especially in regards to spatial learning, spatial memory, and object recognition learning. It has even been hypothesized that numerical learning is affected. A 2007 literature review by Bellebaum implicates the cerebellum, best known for motor involvement, in higher order cognitive processes. Executive function, sometimes called cognitive control or mental control, is responsible for planning and organizing; starting, finishing, and switching tasks; and behavioral and mental inhibition. Although we don’t yet understand this link, Bellebaum concedes it is “widely accepted that the cerebellum contributes to cognitive processing” (2007). Finally, a study by Kirsch et al. looked for evidence of oxytocin involvement. Oxytocin is a “feel good” hormone and is often released during rhythmic rocking of the hips; that’s why people like walking, running, dancing, and having sex. Kirsch et al. found that oxytocin not only reduces amygdala activation thereby mitigating fear, but that it also affects social cognition (Kirsch et al., 2005). Findings like this confirm what Rupert and his team have seen in their clients: movement helps learning. Specifically the movement of a horse in rhythm, which closely mimics pelvic rocking in the human gait. While most of the research has yet to make links to neural processes and equine-assisted therapy, and there is still lots more research that needs to be done and replicated before theories like these will come into the mainstream, the foundational bricks have been layed.

Even if the science supports the Horse Boy Method, it is unlikely to become a staple in education of Autistics if only for the simple reason that we can’t put horses in every public school in the country. What is scalable, however, is the principles behind the Horse Boy Method. Some, like the authors of Teaching Children with Autism in the General Classroom, are already suggesting ways to create a more autism-friendly environment. By taking time to consider the sensory needs of each student, teachers provide more opportunities for success. Learning to recognize, process, and regulate emotions is something all children need to learn. Encouraging rather than suppressing stimming allows children to build proficiency in self-regulation. Another core idea of the Horse Boy Method is that of letting students explore and direct their own education. Students learn from teachers, but teachers can—and should—also learn from students. The Horse Boy Method is invaluable for the children and families that are able to work with Horse Boy practitioners around the country. For the rest of us, Horse Boy challenges us to think differently about the education of exceptional students. And this is something that will benefit ALL students.


All Education Schools. (n.d.). Special Education History in the U.S. Retrieved February 20, 2017, from http://www.alleducationschools.com/special-education/special-education-history/

Bellebaum, C., & Daum, I. (2007). Cerebellar involvement in executive control. The Cerebellum,6(3), 184-192. Retrieved March 19, 2017.

Burgess, R. (2016, April 5). Understanding the Spectrum. Retrieved February 20, 2017, from http://theoraah.tumblr.com/post/142300214156/understanding-the-spectrum

Faherty, C. (2014). Autism: What Does It Mean To Me? Future Horizons Inc.

Hocutt, A. M. (1996). Effectiveness of Special Education: Is Placement the Critical Factor? The Future of Children, (Spring 1996), 77-102. Retrieved February 20, 2017, from https://www.princeton.edu/futureofchildren/publications/docs/06_01_04.pdf

Kirsch, P., Esslinger, C., Chen, Q., Mier, D., Lis, S., Siddhanti, S., Gruppe, H., Mattay, V., Gallhofer, B., Meyer-Lindenberg, A. (2005). Oxytocin Modulates Neural Circuitry for Social Cognition and Fear in Humans. Journal of Neuroscience, 25 (49), 11489-11493.Our Story. (n.d.). Retrieved February 20, 2017, from http://www.horseboyfoundation.org/our-story

Simpson, C. G., & Spencer, V. G. (Eds.). (2009). Teaching Children with Autism in the General Classroom: Strategies for Effective Inclusion and Instruction. Prufrock Press.

Spratt, E. G., Nicholas, J. S., Brady, K. T., Carpenter, L. A., Hatcher, C. R., Meekins, K. A., … Charles, J. M. (2012). Enhanced Cortisol Response to Stress in Children in Autism. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders42(1), 75–81. http://doi.org/10.1007/s10803-011-1214-0

The Lovaas Center. (n.d.). Dr. Ole Ivar Lovaas | Pioneer of Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA). Retrieved February 20, 2017, from http://thelovaascenter.com/about-us/dr-ivar-lovaas/

Wright, K. (2001, Nov. & dec.). 20 Classroom Modifications for Students with Autism. Autism/Asperger Digest. Retrieved February 20, 2017, from http://tcsps.sharpschool.net/UserFiles/Servers/Server_981069/File/Migrated%20Documents/20_classrm_modifications_for_students_with_autism.pdf