By Radhika Tanksale, Clinical Psychologist
The use of complementary and alternative treatment approaches in the area of autism is growing. Animal-assisted intervention is an adjunctive treatment approach. In my opinion, many children on the autism spectrum have a natural affinity to animals. Additionally, animals are non-judgmental, are a calming presence, and promote self-regulation (Guérin, Rodriguez, Brodhead, & O’Haire, 2017). Therapeutic horseback riding is one such treatment to assist with self-regulation for some children on the autism spectrum who have a special interest in animals in general or love horses. Equine therapy includes mounting and riding the horse and ground activities such as grooming and caring for the horse. The authors, Srinivasan, Cavagnino, and Bhat (2018) systematically reviewed the benefits of equine therapy for children on the autism spectrum (3 to 16 years). They summarised that equine therapy resulted in positive behavioural changes and also facilitated social-communication skills.
The possible mechanisms of actions that support therapeutic gains of equine-assisted therapy for children on the autism spectrum could be (Mapes & Rosén, 2016):
1. Body awareness; as the child becomes more aware of his/her arms, legs, posture as they ride, pull on reins to manage the horse’s movements, it facilitates motor planning. Proprioceptive input is provided by the rhythm of the horse movements.
2. Attentional control; some children love horses and being around the animal is motivating and rewarding for them. The motivation to be with the horse increases active engagement with the lesson which can stimulate better attention control.
3. Sensory-motor; horseback riding is multisensory and involves graded vestibular, proprioceptive, and tactile input. The motion of riding may also have calming effects.
4. Facilitate communication; children learn that horses respond to commands and may be encouraged to communicate with the animal.
5. Calming therapy; the therapeutic relationship between the child and the horse helps relax the child. This develops an emotional bond and assists with emotional functioning.
6. One reason for improving self-regulation might be that animal behaviour is predictable, easy to read, and the child can connect with the horse based on trust. This connection may increase a sense of safety and lower physiological arousal.
Guérin, N. A., Rodriguez, K. E., Brodhead, M. T., & O’Haire, M. E. (2017). Assessing Preferences for Animals in Children with Autism: A New Use for Video-Based Preference Assessment. Frontiers in veterinary science, 4, 29-29. doi:10.3389/fvets.2017.00029
Mapes, A. R., & Rosén, L. A. (2016). Equine-Assisted Therapy for Children with Autism Spectrum Disorder: a Comprehensive Literature Review. Review Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 3(4), 377-386. doi:10.1007/s40489-016-0090-0
Srinivasan, S. M., Cavagnino, D. T., & Bhat, A. N. (2018). Effects of Equine Therapy on Individuals with Autism Spectrum Disorder: a Systematic Review. Review Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 5(2), 156-175. doi:10.1007/s40489-018-0130-z