Equine-Assisted therapy is an effective treatment for Autism Spectrum Disorder, reveals new research.
Equine - assisted therapy was put to the test in order to establish its efficacy as a treatment for Autism. In a new research where autistic patients were assisted in engaging with trained horses, it was observed that participants improved some of the traits affecting Autistic patients, like: sociability and motor skills.
The research was comprised of 28 children diagnosed with Autism, from which 13 were control subjects. Each subject had 25 sessions for a length of 60 to 70 minutes, once a week for six months, and only 3 to 4 participants at a time were allowed to participate.
This Equine - Assisted therapy research was divided in 3 phases:
1) phase 1: for 20 minutes children participate in grooming and 10 minutes of hand walking with the horse. The Grooming phase was aimed at teaching children about basic safety rules and improving their knowledge of the horses, harness and the hands-on aspects of horse management, such as: how to groom and care for their horse, including the identification and right use of the grooming and bathing tools.
2) phase 2: Children had a 20–30 min horseback riding. Horse riding activities were introduced from the fifth session and comprised riding activities with vaulting girth (5th–6th sessions) and riding with the saddle (from the 7th session).
3) phase 3: Children were put on the ground for 10 for closing up the session. In this phase, children were encouraged to follow instructions given by the therapist and to interact with the horse both verbally and no verbally. Visual aids were provided like: pictures, colour drawings and posters on the walls, representing grooming tools and horse’s morphology and behaviour.
What areas improved by Equine- Assisted Therapy, and what do they represent?
After six months, the 15 subjects that were part of all the steps of Equine - Assisted Therapy were analysed through the various methods of measuring behavioural and cognitive function. They were found to have improved in three areas:
Social Functioning, which has been defined as one’s ability to construct representations of relations between oneself and others, and to use such representations to model social behaviour
Motor abilities: The importance of efficient motor abilities has been shown to be of extreme importance for one’s overall development. The reason for this, is that motor skills are important for a range of everyday activities such as: communication and language development, playing and interacting with others, mental imagery and perception. So, it is likely that abnormal development of motor control can have far reaching consequences on the development of a person.
Executive functioning, which is a set of cognitive processes, such as: impulse control, working memory, flexible thinking, planning and prioritizing, organization and problem solving. In this research it was observed that there was a reduced planning time in a problem-solving task.
Another report on the Effects of Equine-Assisted therapy on Children and Adolescents with Autism Spectrum Disorder, revealed that a 5-week programme of therapeutic riding had effects on social functioning of children and adolescents with Autism. The 15 children aged between 5 and 16 years, had three - hour session once a week. The participants showed an improvement in two areas: empathising and maladaptive behaviours.
The development of empathy is very important in terms of minimizing the traits of an autism diagnosis. Because there is a correlation between limited empathising in ASD sufferers and the fact that they have social difficulties.
Maladaptive behaviours are behaviours that inhibit a person’s ability to adapt to particular situations. These include internalized, asocial and externalized behaviours, such as destructive habits, repetitive behaviours and self-harm tendencies.
These findings show a promising intervention treatment for Autism. There were in the past anecdotal reports on the effectiveness of Equine- assisted Therapy. But now such efficacy has been tested with encouraging results. This must be the reason why more people believe that animal therapy should be an included intervention treatment for a range of disabilities such as Autism, as revealed in a recent survey on the Attitudes and beliefs about animal assisted therapy for children with disabilities.