How hippotherapy helps those with autism

For too long, the condition of autism has been pathologised when all the time, the differences between so-called normal people and those with autism appeared just to be a different way of thinking.

Now scientists from the University of Montreal has backed this up with some new research which shows how people with autism use specific areas of their brains.
Those on the autism spectrum use their brains differently to most other people which may explain why some have extraordinary abilities to remember and draw objects in detail, and others have almost genius ability with mental arithmetic.

In those with autism, while these specific areas are more busy, other brain areas are less so.

Not disorganisation but reorganisation

“For example, this may show a means to help people to literacy in a much more natural way than the usual methods of helping autistic people,” said Dr Laurent Mottron from the University of Montreal.

“The natural tendency is to think that autism is a form of disorganisation. Here, what we see is that it is a reorganisation of the brain,” he said.

So instead of trying to cure autism, perhaps we should be looking at ways to help those who think differently to develop ways of interacting within their community and to maximise their potential. And the areas of their brains which are not normally so active could be stimulated.

One method which has been found to be helpful, and which was illustrated so intriguingly and movingly in the movie, The Horse Boy, is therapy with horses, otherwise known as hippotherapy.

How does hippotherapy work?

Hipptherapy is a type of therapy which is specifically designed for use with horses in order to improve physical, occupational and speech functions of the clients who use it. It is called this because it comes from the Greek word for ‘horse’, which is ‘hippo’.

It is, in fact, one of several therapies which utilises horses for its treatment, although is different in that it does not teach riding skills. Instead, it uses the movement of the horse and direct interaction with the therapist to improve motor skills of the rider.

Hippotherapy has developed as a therapy since the 1960s when therapeutic riding centres began opening up across North America and Europe. Around this time, horses began to be viewed as an important extra in various forms of physical therapy and the process became known as hippotherapy.

Hippotherapy works in several ways – first, it can help both adults and children with neuromusculoskeletal problems to aid in improving their posture, coordination, balance, muscle tone and general motor development.

Second, the horse provides both a physical and sensory input for the rider. There is a rhythmic movement, which encourages the rider to move with the horse and when the horse changes gait, the rider has to adjust.

Thirdly, there are benefits to the rider’s speech and language skills as the movement of the horse has been found to cause natural reactions which encourage speech and language.

But perhaps more importantly, by joining in the fun at riding schools, children with autism can be made to feel accepted for their condition, and valued for who they are.
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