Tina Caswell, clinical instructor in the Department of Speech-Language Pathology and Audiology, recently appeared on internet radio show Horses in the Morning to discuss Strides, a program she developed to help non-verbal or low-verbal autistic children improve communication skills through horseback riding.
Caswell spoke with hosts Glenn The Greek and Jamie Jennings during a 10-minute segment on the Sept. 30 broadcast, explaining how coupling the calming act of horseback riding and an iPad programmed with speech software can help autistic children communicate in a way they couldn’t otherwise.
Strides, Caswell says, addresses two of the biggest hurdles these children face by helping them focus and providing an outlet to express themselves. For example, a child who one minute is running around the barn, trying to find sensory experience will often relax once they get on the horse.
“That horse seems to take all of that extra energy and just take it into their body,” Caswell said during the interview. “This kid is, wow, all of a sudden focused, attentive, looking at me, looking at the side walkers, looking at the lead walkers, and being able to communicate more effectively because they have the attention to what’s going on and they’re motivated.”
This focus allows Caswell to reach the child more directly and understand what they're trying to express, a challenge which can be even more frustrating than it sounds.
“These kids think. They have words in their head,” Caswell explained. “It’s just, how do they express themselves and actually share that language with the verbal world? So we’re working on trying to help them express themselves because I know they have a lot to say.”
Caswell shared the story of eight-year old Luke, a child who had fallen off a horse before joining the Strides program. Luke was scared to try horseback riding again and vocalized very loudly when they put him back on the horse.
To help Luke feel like he was being heard, Caswell programmed four phrases into the iPad which Luke could play by pressing a button:
Don’t let me fall.
I fell off a horse.
I will be brave.
Luke pressed each of the buttons, letting the Strides staff know exactly how he felt, and immediately had a new approach to the experience.
“The vocalization stopped, he calmed down, he melted into that big, beautiful, animal and had a beautiful ride,” Caswell said. “He just needed to validate to us that ‘Don’t let me fall off. I’ve fallen off before. And I will try to be as brave as I can.’”