How horses helped a teenager with autism rise to become a professor

Horses played a crucial role in the personal and career development of Professor Temple Grandin. Photo: Colorado State University
Horses played a crucial role in the personal and career development of Professor Temple Grandin. Photo: Colorado State University

The crucial role that horses played in the rise of Temple Grandin from an autistic youngster to a professor of animal science at Colorado State University are described in a just-published paper.

A paper published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health outlines that journey, describing the bullying she endured at high school and the importance of horses as she grew up.

The case report, written by Grandin, is part of a special issue of the journal exploring the psycho-social impact of human-animal interactions.

Grandin titled her report, “How horses helped a teenager with autism make friends and learn how to work.”

She describes how horse activities enabled her to make friends through a shared interest in horses, and how the responsibility of caring for horses and cleaning stalls every day taught her good work skills.

“My experiences suggest that there were valuable outcomes from working with horses,” she says.

That interest in horses grew into a successful career in the livestock industry which has spanned more than 40 years.  She is considered a world-renowned expert in two fields: animal welfare and autism.

Grandin writes that she was born in 1947 and had autism with speech delay until age four.

“When I was three, I had all the signs of severe autism, such as no speech, repetitive behavior and temper tantrums.

“Early intensive speech therapy and teaching turn-taking during games enabled me to become fully verbal at age four.

“Fortunately, I was mainstreamed into a regular classroom in a small school when I was five. They had older, experienced teachers.

“The bullies did not start attacking me until high school, because my third-grade teacher, Alice Dietsch, explained to the other children that I had a disability that was not visible in the same way as a wheelchair.

“Alice Dietsch’s explanation motivated the other students to help me instead of teasing and bullying.

“The other students encouraged me to play with them and follow the rules of a game. Today, this method is called peer-mediated intervention for autism. Research shows that it is effective.

“Enrolling in a large girl’s high school was a complete disaster. I went into puberty at age 14, and this is when bullying started.

“There was no teacher to explain to the other girls that they should not bully me. This was the time when other girls became interested in clothes, boys, and jewelry; I had zero interest in these things.

“In elementary school, I had friends through shared interests in art class, sewing, and wood working. In fact, I was the second girl in my fifth-grade elementary school class who was allowed to take wood shop. The girls in the high school were no longer interested in building and making things.

“In a larger girl’s high school, I no longer had friends through a special shared interest. Shared interests are an important avenue for teenagers on the autism spectrum to make friends.

“In ninth-grade, at the age of 14, I was kicked out of school for throwing a book at a girl who called me a retard. From there, I went to a special boarding school located on a farm that had both horses and dairy cows.

“Many of the students at this school had autism. In one of my books, Animals in Translation, I explained that my life revolved around horses. At that time, I did not realize the full extent of their benefits.”

Going to the boarding school did not stop the bullying.

“The other students called me ‘tape recorder’ because I always used the same phrases. Other students became bored when I kept talking about my favorite topics such as carnival rides.

“There was one refuge that sheltered me from bullying and teasing: none of the bullies participated in horseback riding. When I was out riding, either on a trail ride or learning equitation in the ring, I was with teenagers who all had the same shared interest in horses.

“This enabled me to develop a friendship with a girl named Carol. We became roommates and our world revolved around horses. There was one really good horse in our stable that was suitable for showing.

“Carol and I had to share her when we went to a horse show. I did some classes and she did others. This also taught me how to share.”

Research clearly shows that riding and equine activities improve social communication and engagement, she says.

“In general, therapy activities involving animals are useful for improving social interaction. Equine activities have the greatest benefits if children keep doing them on a regular schedule.”

Grandin emphasizes that horse or dog-assisted therapy will not work for all individuals on the autism spectrum, as some will have sensory problems that make them avoid animals.

“During my observations of equine therapy for children with autism, there is often not enough emphasis on determining which riders should learn to ride without a side walker.

“A side walker is a person who holds the horse’s lead rope and leads the horse. There are some individuals who will always need a side walker, but there are others who should become completely independent riders.

“There is very little literature on determining who needs a side walker and who does not. I observed many situations where people over-accommodate. This is especially a problem with non-verbal individuals.”

Grandin said her social life improved with horses, but she was still a poor student who was not interested in studying.

“Other than biology class, I had no interest in school work.

“Mr Patey, the headmaster, decided to put me to work caring for the horses and cleaning their stalls.

“He told my mother that I needed to get through my adolescence, and studying could come later. Every day, I cleaned nine stalls, for eight horses and one donkey. It was hard work, but I thrived on the responsibility of managing the horse barn.

“In addition to stall cleaning, I put the horses in and out of the farm to pasture and fed them. It was a job, and I did it every day.

“One of the biggest problems for fully-verbal people diagnosed with autism is employment.

“Taking care of the horses was a job that had responsibility. I was extremely careful never to leave the grain box open. I knew that a horse that gets into an open grain box can over-eat and die.

“Another benefit of working in the horse barn is that the hard, physical work helped to calm my anxiety. In my experiences with anxiety, Henry Patey let me go for several years without studying, but I was never allowed to become a recluse in my room.

“Even though I seldom studied, attending classes and meals was required.

“During my last years at the special school, William Carlock, my science teacher, got me interested in studying by giving me interesting projects. To motivate me to study, studying had to become a pathway to the goal of becoming a scientist.”

Equine activities at high school provided two important benefits, she writes.

“The first was making friends through a joint shared interest in horses and riding.

“My roommate and I worked hard together to prepare our horses for show. This also taught me the discipline of mastering riding skills.

“A second benefit was learning responsibility and work skills. I cleaned stalls every day, fed the horses and put them in and out of the barn. This also enabled me to gain greater confidence.

“The faculty member in charge of the equine program made it clear to me that he recognized my good work in the stables. Equine activities also provided a refuge away from the bullies who tormented me on other parts of the campus.”

Grandin says equine activities can benefit young people with ASD in terms of learning both social and working skills.

Grandin T. Case Study: How Horses Helped a Teenager with Autism Make Friends and Learn How to Work. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health. 2019; 16(13):2325.

The case report, published under a Creative Commons License, can he read here.

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