It’s always nice to hear from people who have used the services at Horses for Causes. One autistic boy came for therapeutic riding. Niall (not his real name) was not very confident. As with most people with Autistic Spectrum Disorders, he came with a long catalogue of problems, issues and difficulties. The team at Horses for Causes became firm friends with Niall’s parents and siblings. We’ve always kept in touch.
Recently Niall returned not for therapeutic riding but for another equine assisted activity. This time he was working from the ground. His mum told me that Niall had become upset over an incident at school. He had become quiet and withdrawn because he could not understand or process what had happened.
Two of his best friends at school had been fighting. They lied to a dinner lady to get out of trouble. One of the boys later confessed to his dad that he had lied. The father told him not to worry and that it was ok. Niall’s world is black and white. Social stories don’t cut it. There’s no acceptance of “sometimes people lie”. His mum tried to explain this to her son but Niall became upset. He didn’t know if he could trust his friends. Perhaps they would lie to him too. Perhaps as they got older they would get into serious trouble. A parent shouldn’t say it’s ok to lie.
I spoke to a co facilitator and discussed ways in which we could help Niall. It was a complex situation but, as ever, we managed to pull something out of the bag.
The incident had happened before Christmas 2016. We were now in the middle of January 2017. To go over the event was meaningless. Although I am not from a mental health training background I am aware of cognitive behavioural therapy. We decided to look at thoughts, feelings and behaviour. Why do events have such an impact on our feelings and why we react to them as we do?
In the session we laid a triangle of poles on the ground in a small exercise pen. Our equine aid was Dusty, a pony with lots of character. Our other visual aids were a handful of facial icons, similar to those smileys on i-phones. We printed off colourful smiles, sad faces and angry expressions on A4 paper and laminated them.
We asked Niall if he could recall a happy memory and asked him to choose some faces that reflected how he felt at that particular time. He placed the faces on the sides of the triangle. Each side of the triangle represented thoughts, feelings and behaviour. All went well. Then we asked about a sad moment. Niall found it difficult to explain. He wanted mum to talk for him. I suggested to my co facilitator and Niall’s mum that we all come up with a sad or not so happy scenario. In turn we spoke to Niall and each other, sharing our “sad” stories. We talked about our feelings - how it made us feel and what we did with that feeling. We were careful about our “sad” stuff choices. We avoided some issues like bereavement. After each person had spoken, Niall hugged the person perhaps assuming it would make things better.
While all this was happening we noticed Dusty was trying to eat a holly bush. Niall decided that it wasn’t very nice and Dusty should not eat. He went over, tapped him on his side and told him not to eat it. Surprisingly, Dusty stopped eating and followed Niall away from the holly bush. In any equine assisted learning session we are always looking at what the horse does and we think about how it relates to our own observations. Dusty looked at the triangle. The smile icon caught his attention. He walked around the triangle, then walked through it and trampled over some of the laminated sheets. Niall laughed and we joined in.
“Dusty has just walked all over my thoughts and feelings,” said Niall.
Dusty returned to the holly bush and I had a light bulb moment!!!!
You know, we can guide our friends away from trouble but what they choose to do is entirely up to up to them. As much as we would like to we cannot stop them doing harmful things. It was a simple message and you didn’t have to be a young boy with autism to understand it.
“He’s a bit like my friend.”
Thank you, Dusty.