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.

References

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

Movement Method Training – Square Peg Ranch, Half Moon Bay

Movement Method  Workshop May 20 and 21, 2017 – Square Peg Ranch

Who: For Parents, Teachers, Therapists and Caregivers

Why: To learn the science and the FUN of an effective method to reach kids with learning challenges such as ADD, ADHD, anxiety, ASD and more using humor, movement and Nature. The results will forever change the way you look at education. 

Where: Square Peg Foundation at Kastl Rock Ranch  

12150 San Mateo Road, Half Moon Bay, CA 94019

When: Saturday and Sunday, May 20 and 21 10am to 3pm  

at 4pm on May 20, we will demonstrate how to optimize Movement Method with a demonstration of Horse Boy™ Work

Cost: $250 includes lunch and a workbook both days (scholarships available – contact Joell@squarepegfoundation.org for information)

Movement Method 1&2 – An Introduction

We train parents, teachers, caregivers and therapists  in the methods effective for homeschooling, un-schooling and mainstream education.

The key is movement and the brain and the link between them. There is no dispute among neuro-scientists and educational psychologists that movement stimulates a child’s brain.

This course teaches you WHY and HOW!

Are you a parent looking to find a way to get your child to learn joyfully? Are you a teacher who has run the gamut of traditional methods and still find that there is a population of kids that you just can’t reach?   

About the Instructor:  Joell Dunlap, RBT is the founder and Executive Director Square Peg Ranch in Half Moon Bay, CA. Square Peg has been serving the “Square Pegs” – the kids who have trouble fitting in – in their community since 2004.  In 2011, Joell began working with the groundbreaking methods developed by Rupert Isaacson at The HorseBoy™ in Texas.  Rupert has developed Movement Method with the help of international universities and special learners worldwide. Square Peg Ranch is one the most active HorseBoy™ Programs in North America.

Spaces Spots are limited sign up  here:




Questions?  Email joell@squarepegfoundation.org

 

The Gospel of Beezus or How To Turn It Upside Down

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.

In Horse Boy Method™ – a pivotal ethos is “follow the child.”  By honoring his interests, by listening and responding to his fantasy world, we acknowledge his thoughts with dignity and importance.

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.”

Fair enough.

“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.

Changing the Words. Our Dangerous Idea for 2017

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.”

“Potentially talented?” 

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.

Words matter.

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.




Good Dog (or not) – The Importance of Environment

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.

img_4383-5At 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.

But.

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?

Hero Worship

Two of my heroes Uluckydevil and ExtraFifty
Two of my heroes Uluckydevil and ExtraFifty

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.

IMG_3345A 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 growthimg_4383-5 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.

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Team Quirky

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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.

IMG_4383 3I’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.

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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 allRCP_5974-L 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!

Does It Work?

Ironically, I was asked by an autism dad – a really thoughtful and kind autism dad “Does it work? 12794357_935374089865613_4462670610467627604_nCan 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 13329388_987466971322991_5141538356751924874_oask 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.

13895306_10210487787140421_391327338345973798_n     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?”

12391409_900149876721368_7239190754960469054_n    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.

Go TeamQuirky!

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War Horses

Enrique Diaz of RED Polo

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 Bachinger performs Croupade

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.

13615464_10153723006021272_1901374914223567535_nBy 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.
13710655_10154585508439384_2108863592017984778_oThe 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, because13769521_10154382314884252_1963877412730085050_n he knows that no-one can solve all the riddles the horse presents to us – life is too short.”

(Udo Bürger, 1959)