A growing body of evidence has shown that children with autism are helped by horse-riding therapy, but is the grass-eating real deal really necessary to obtain the benefits?
An interdisciplinary team at Baylor University in Texas will evaluate a device that simulates the motion of riding a horse to determine its effectiveness as a treatment for children with autism.
The team of scientists and engineers has been awarded a grant of nearly $US600,000 from the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board to study the effectiveness of the simulated riding device.
Studies have shown that therapeutic horseback riding can help children with autism achieve improved social and motor skills as well as reduce irritability and hyperactivity.
However, the exact mechanism by which it works is unknown. Researchers suspect that the complex, three-dimensional motion of a horse’s gait leads a rider to move his or her body to maintain equilibrium, stimulating sensory processes, and engaging neurological connections that are sometimes deficient in children with autism.
However, geographic, physical, and economic barriers can limit access to this therapeutic option for some children, which motivated Dr Brian Garner, associate professor of mechanical engineering in Baylor’s School of Engineering and Computer Science, to invent a device – the MiraColt – that mimics the riding motion through an elegant system of pulleys and gears.
Funds from the grant will allow Garner and his Baylor collaborators, Drs Beth Lanning (public health), Julie Ivey (educational psychology), Paul Fillmore (communication sciences and disorders) and Jon Rylander (mechanical engineering), to test the effectiveness of using the device, in addition to other existing therapies and treatments for autism.
Research participants – children with autism referred to the program through the Baylor Autism Research Group – will spend time riding the mechanical horse while performing other motor and cognitive activities over a 10-week treatment program.
The participants also will undergo another 10-week program in which they perform the same motor and cognitive activities while sitting still. Comparing the outcome of the treatments administered while riding the MiraColt to those administered while sitting still will allow the researchers to evaluate the effectiveness of the horseback riding simulator.
“This is a multi-disciplinary project,” Garner says. “We have faculty involved from mechanical engineering, health sciences, educational psychology, and communication sciences and disorders. The assessments will be looking for improvements in speech and language, balance, muscle coordination, and even brainwave activity using EEG helmets.”
While Garner and his team have performed studies of the physiological effects of using the MiraColt on healthy adults, this project will represent the first full-scale attempt to measure the device’s effectiveness in children with autism.
From lab to market
Garner has been granted a patent on his invention and formed a company called Chariot Innovations to develop and market the MiraColt with the assistance of the Lab to Market (L2M) Collaborative. L2M is a joint effort between Baylor, Blueprints Lab, and local venture capital firm Waco Ventures to move ideas, inventions, and technologies with real-world impact from the laboratory to the marketplace.
Allen Page, a founding partner of Waco Ventures, serves as the chairman of Chariot Innovations. As the father of two children with autism, Page understands the need for research-based interventions that make treatment options available to more families.
“There are a number of interesting studies suggesting that hippotherapy is helpful for children with autism,” Page says. “We anticipate that this research will connect some of the benefits of hippotherapy to the MiraColt, which provides a convenient and affordable option to supplement hippotherapy treatment or receive some of its benefits more consistently.
“In March, the Centers for Disease Control estimated that one in every 54 children has been diagnosed with autism, so the potential to help this growing population is what makes this research so timely.”
Using three-dimensional motion capture technology to understand the organic motion of horseback riding and then create a device that reproduces that motion is a challenging technical feat. Garner, however, views the undertaking as less of a scientific exercise than as an expression of his faith.
“We’re taking technology and applying it in a way that will hopefully improve people’s lives,” Garner says, “and that makes it a perfect fit for Baylor’s Christian mission. It’s not just about meeting people’s physical needs; it’s broader than that. Our hope is that there will be a spiritual impact as well.”