With Horses and iPads, Autistic Children Learn to Communicate
ITHACA, NY—Luke, a 7-year-old autistic child had primarily only expressed requests to his parents (e.g., I want a drink), but this past year he was introduced to a 1,000 pound horse, 1-pound iPad and special program called Strides©. During the concentrated eight-week Strides© program, Luke used the iPad to have his first two-way conversation, share his feelings and tell his new friends about how he lost his tooth.
Children with autism have great difficulty developing verbal communications skills; 40 percent are, like Luke, nonverbal. Southern Tier Alternative Therapies, Inc. (STAT), together with Tina Caswell, a clinical faculty member in Ithaca College’s Department of Speech-Language Pathology and Audiology, is addressing this issue by combining equine therapy and assistive technology through an exclusive program called Strides©. Though both therapy approaches have been proven effective independently, they have rarely been used in tandem. The Strides© program puts children on horseback and gives each family iPads equipped with speech-generating applications. Caswell and her team of Ithaca College graduate students provide intensive, highly customized training and ongoing support. The unique therapeutic approach has helped children reach significant breakthroughs in communication, both verbally and through effective use of the device.
“What I’m seeing in our Strides© sessions is a lot of firsts,” Caswell said. “It’s the first time the children have been on horseback, the first time many of them are using iPads with speech software, and more important, the first time they’ve had any kind of access to self-expression. Parents also tell me it’s the first time they’ve been able to have a two-way conversation with their kids. It’s wonderful when the children can express basic wants, but what we’re seeing through this therapy goes beyond that. Children are doing more than requesting food and toys. For the first time, they are telling narratives and sharing feelings.”
Weighing over five pounds and resembling laptops, traditional assisted speech-generating devices can be cumbersome and heavy, and children tend to abandon them due to lack of interest with their limited communication options. On the contrary, iPads loaded with speech-generating applications only weigh around 1 pound, cost significantly less than traditional assisted speaking devices and are more user friendly. Each child participating in the program is given an iPad to be used as a speech-generating device. Participants and their parents are then trained by the Strides© team and the Ithaca College students and faculty to continuously update new communication opportunities on their devices.
“Since iPads are so light and mobile, the children can easily use them while they ride horseback, feed the ducks, or simply go for a walk.” said Caswell. “Using the iPads in all kinds of varied and engaging environments keeps the children from getting bored and encourages them to communicate at a higher level.”
The Strides© project is supported by grants awarded to STAT by the United Way of Broome County (NY) and the State of New York OPWDD Family Support Services Fund. Caswell and her graduate student assistants from the Ithaca College speech pathology program conduct the eight-week therapy sessions helping to build on and enhance STAT’s existing equine therapy programs.
“Many of the parents in the program are awestruck in witnessing their child express something he or she already had knowledge of,” said Catherine Markosky, founder of STAT and the Strides© program. “During the program, we witnessed one child communicate his understanding of addition, and the parents were completely unaware that their child even knew his numbers at all. That’s the beauty of the project; discovering that there’s a person in there just waiting to be heard.”
Through STAT, Caswell will conduct follow-up programming to determine the long-term effects of the Strides© program participants. She recently presented at the New York State Speech-Language-Hearing Association Annual Convention in April 2013.
Autism affects one in 88 children; it is more likely to affect boys than girls.
About 40 percent of children with autism do not speak.
Autism is a disorder that appears in the first three years of life and affects the brain’s normal development of social and communication skills. Though the exact causes remain unknown, research has shown genetic factors play an important role.
Source: U.S. National Library of Medicine and the National Autism Association
Equine Therapy and Autism
The horse provides a dynamic base of support, making it an excellent tool for increasing trunk strength and control, balance, building overall postural strength and endurance, addressing weight bearing, and motor planning.
Source: American Hippotherapy Association
Research shows that individuals who participate in equine-assisted activities can experience physical and emotional rewards, increase confidence, self-esteem and patience, and build communication skills.
Source: Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship International (PATH)
The bond that develops between human and horse also opens up many new opportunities such as independence and responsibility.
Source: Federation of Horses in Education and Therapy International (HETI)
How Speech-Generating Applications Help Autistic Children Communicate
Various apps are available for people who have difficulty speaking or cannot speak at all. Displayed on iPad, iPhone and iPod screens, the apps feature buttons that represent various words and actions. By pressing the appropriate buttons or typing on the onscreen keyboard, an autistic child can produce a voice that expresses the message portrayed by the symbol. A four-minute demonstration of Proloquo2Go, the app used in the Strides© program, is available at: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zuKv0Z2_HMo
Strides© and STAT
Strides© is a program developed through grants awarded to Southern Tier Alternative Therapies, Inc. (STAT) by the United Way of Broome County, New York, and the State of New York OPWDD Family Support Services. STAT promotes and facilitates equine-assisted activities and programs for children with special needs and for vulnerable populations. STAT provides scholarships and programming to more than 230 children with special needs throughout the Southern Tier, Central New York, and Northern and Western Pennsylvania. The program focuses on improving the participant’s communication, literacy and language skills.
Tina Caswell works with STAT to lead the therapy sessions and to help develop program protocol. Ithaca College speech-language pathology graduate students assist Caswell in teaching and coaching the children and parents during the riding sessions. View more information here: http://www.statinc.org/
Tina Caswell is a clinical instructor in Ithaca College’s Department of Speech-Language Pathology and Audiology, where she teaches and supervises graduate-level clinicians and operates an assistive technology lab on campus specializing in Augmentative and Alternative Communication (AAC). Working with STAT, she specializes in assisting children with complex communications needs that require AAC to communicate with others.
Ithaca College Speech-Language Pathology and Audiology Program
Ithaca College awards bachelor of science and master of science degrees in speech-language pathology. The capstone experience of the undergraduate degree is experiential learning through clinical practica during the junior or senior year at the Sir Alexander Ewing-Ithaca College Speech and Hearing Clinic or at an approved off-campus clinic site. Graduate students gain hands-on experience through additional clinical work. Several students have chosen to participate in providing therapy through the Strides© program each year.
Students who graduate from the Ithaca College program are fully prepared to provide therapy in their field or conduct advanced research. One hundred percent of graduate-level students from the recent 2011–12 class found professional employment immediately after graduation.