Horse-tech and iPad helps young autistic boy reach out


A combination of equine therapy and an iPad has helped a seven-year-old autistic boy share his feeling and talk to his friends.

A youngster in the Strides© program.
A youngster in the Strides© program. © Adam Baker

Previously, young Luke had primarily expressed only requests to his parents (eg, ‘I want a drink’), but this past year he was given a 1-pound iPad, introduced to a 1000-pound horse and a special program called Strides. During a concentrated eight-week Strides program, Luke used the iPad to have his first two-way conversation, share his feelings and tell his new friends about how he lost his tooth.

Children with autism have great difficulty developing verbal communications skills; 40 percent are, like Luke, nonverbal. Southern Tier Alternative Therapies, Inc. (STAT), together with Tina Caswell, a clinical faculty member in Ithaca College’s Department of Speech-Language Pathology and Audiology, is addressing this issue with Strides, a program combining equine therapy and assistive technology.

Though both therapy approaches have been proven effective independently, they have rarely been used in tandem. The Strides© program puts children on horseback and gives each family iPads equipped with speech-generating applications. Caswell and her team of Ithaca College graduate students provide intensive, highly customized training and ongoing support. The unique therapeutic approach has helped children reach significant breakthroughs in communication, both verbally and through effective use of the device.

“What I’m seeing in our Strides sessions is a lot of firsts,” Caswell said. “It’s the first time the children have been on horseback, the first time many of them are using iPads with speech software, and more important, the first time they’ve had any kind of access to self-expression. Parents also tell me it’s the first time they’ve been able to have a two-way conversation with their kids. It’s wonderful when the children can express basic wants, but what we’re seeing through this therapy goes beyond that. Children are doing more than requesting food and toys. For the first time, they are telling narratives and sharing feelings.”

Weighing over 5 pounds and resembling laptops, traditional assisted speech-generating devices can be cumbersome and heavy, and children tend to abandon them due to lack of interest with their limited communication options. On the contrary, iPads loaded with speech-generating applications only weigh around one pound, cost significantly less than traditional assisted speaking devices and are more user friendly. Each child participating in the program is given an iPad to be used as a speech-generating device. Participants and their parents are then trained by the Strides team and the Ithaca College students and faculty to continuously update new communication opportunities on their devices.

Equine therapy and assistive technology  have been proven effective independently, but have rarely been used in tandem.
Equine therapy and assistive technology have been proven effective independently, but have rarely been used in tandem. © Adam Baker

“Since iPads are so light and mobile, the children can easily use them while they ride horseback, feed the ducks, or simply go for a walk,” Caswell said.

“Using the iPads in all kinds of varied and engaging environments keeps the children from getting bored and encourages them to communicate at a higher level.”

The Strides project is supported by grants awarded to STAT by the United Way of Broome County in New York and the State of New York OPWDD Family Support Services Fund. Caswell and her graduate student assistants from the Ithaca College speech pathology program conduct the eight-week therapy sessions helping to build on and enhance STAT’s existing equine therapy programs.

“Many of the parents in the program are awestruck in witnessing their child express something he or she already had knowledge of,” said Catherine Markosky, founder of STAT and the Strides program.

“During the program, we witnessed one child communicate his understanding of addition, and the parents were completely unaware that their child even knew his numbers at all. That’s the beauty of the project; discovering that there’s a person in there just waiting to be heard.”

Through STAT, Caswell will conduct follow-up programming to determine the long-term effects of the Strides program participants. She recently presented at the New York State Speech-Language-Hearing Association Annual Convention in April 2013.

Autism affects one in 88 children, and it is more likely to affect boys than girls. About 40 percent of children with autism do not speak. It is a disorder that appears in the first three years of life and affects the brain’s normal development of social and communication skills. Though the exact causes remain unknown, research has shown genetic factors play an important role.

In regard to autistic children and horses, the American Hippotherapy Association says: “The horse provides a dynamic base of support, making it an excellent tool for increasing trunk strength and control, balance, building overall postural strength and endurance, addressing weight bearing, and motor planning.”

The Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship International (PATH) says research shows that individuals who participate in equine-assisted activities can experience physical and emotional rewards, increase confidence, self-esteem and patience, and build communication skills.

And, the Federation of Horses in Education and Therapy International (HETI) notes that the bond that develops between human and horse also opens up many new opportunities such as independence and responsibility.

© Adam Baker
© Adam Baker

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