‘John’, 9 year old boy.
John is in full time education at a special school. He has a diagnosis of autism. He was referred to Autism Angels by his parents who reported that John was physically violent both at home and school. They reported that he had no friends as he would ‘attack everyone’.
John required a ‘restraint jacket’ to travel safely in a car. He was able to verbally communicate but this was limited. He would not initiate conversation. Unsurprisingly they reported that John was struggling at school and that he was being regularly physically restrained due to physical violence towards his peers and staff. John has ‘limited reading skills’ and it was reported that he is only able to concentrate for no longer than two minutes at a time. School reports state that he is unable to retain information.
John’s parents referred him to AA as they were seeking a place for John to ‘Find somewhere where he is able to express himself’.
John entered the mentoring programme on 27th April 2015.
During the first week, John was introduced to the environment and his mentor began to work with him demonstrating through various means the expectation of AA of John whilst he was on the programme.
By working with the horses John’s mentor could role-model the behaviour that is expected of him. Showing empathy towards the horse, kindness and consideration; and what happens if those are not met.
For example if John rushed up to the horse and attempted to hit it (as he would at school), the horse would move away from him, turn his back on him and not allow John near. John could see immediately that when his behaviour changed towards the horse, the horse could connect again with him, allowing him to stroke him, groom him and lead him around.
The aim of the programme is not to teach compliance and conformity for the sake of it, but to show alternative ways of communicating and taking responsibility of oneself which will develop a greater sense of empowerment and ultimately wellbeing. This in turn leads to the individual no longer needing to ‘challenge’ as a way to get their needs met; as more appropriate communication has been learned. Skills learned on the programme are all intended to be able to be transferred into everyday life. For example:
Each session begins with a ‘check-in’ – learning to express how you are feeling at that particular moment, and therefore getting in touch with your own body and its needs. This is sometimes a challenge for any individual, and especially for someone on the spectrum already with a communication disorder, is what can lead to ‘challenging behaviour’. By tuning into how their body is feeling, in turn helps them to understand how other feel and what can be done as a group to support that.
John struggled with this concept at first, but now not only can he identify his own feelings, and deal with them appropriately, for example, asking for support when scared/unsure; but he seeks to find out how others are feeling, and supporting them with their needs.
Other areas of working with the horses include:
Horse grooming/care – this can be directly mapped across to their own personal hygiene and care and the responsibility of taking care of others.
Horse leading – Helps the individual within a safe environment practice leadership skills and boundarying behaviour that is not acceptable (learning to say ‘No’), for example when a horse continues to move when the person asks them to stop.
Outcome from the Programme:
John is now showing improvements in the following areas:
- Language and conversational skills
- Concentrating for at least 10 minutes on a set task
- Retaining information and skills learned from one week to the next – purposeful learning; learning about the points of the horse and what the equipment is called and used for
- Decision making – being given options and choosing from them
- Problem solving – learning to negotiate not only himself through an obstacle course, but safely leading his horse through it too.
- Speaking up – Asking for help from others when unsure, ensuring his needs are met in an appropriate way
- Understanding situations from another’s perpective – learning and understanding the horse’s body language, what this is saying; are they happy, scared, alert, sleepy.
- Greater ‘body awareness’ – able to balance, increase fitness, stability whilst riding, learning left and right by leading the horses
- Maintaining his own safety
Incidences of restraint have also dropped at school. School report that John is now slowly improving his social skills, meaning that he is less isolated and mixing more with his peers. John is no longer restrained in the car and can travel safely.
The skills he is learning at AA he is able to transfer and apply at school; with teachers reporting that he is able to concentrate for longer periods and his working memory is improving.
Family involvement is key to the huge success of this programme. As they are also involved and learning with John they can continue to work on the concepts at home. ‘Controlling’ behaviours previously exhibited by John have now diminished, for example, walking at a very slow pace, repetitive questioning, refusing to move when asked. Now these issues are resolving it means that the family have a better family life, being able to integrate more fully with their community, social occasions and outings.
‘Jane’, 8 year old girl.
This is the story of my daughter Jane and her journey with Autism Angels.
Jane started the mentoring programme just after Easter 2015, following the last in a long list of exclusion from school over an 18 month period.
I can only describe the change in Jane over the last 6 months as transformational.
Following a childhood trauma Jane began to display violent and chaotic behaviours 2 years ago both at school and at home. She was placed by school on the SEN register for behaviour and additional support was put in place both at home and school, I set up regular counselling sessions including attachment therapy and reparenting strategies.
Jane’s behaviour improved significantly over an 18 month period, but it is over the last 6 months on the mentoring programme that we have seen our beautiful girl blossom.
Her self-confidence and self-esteem were very low, she struggled to make friends and keep them, due to her behaviour. As a family we became very isolated, friendships with other families dissolved as their children could no longer deal with Jane’s often abusive and erratic behaviour.
The change in Jane has been seismic, she is so grounded now and has an amazing sense of self. She identifies with herself and will say to me ‘I am amazing mummy, aren’t I?’ Words I never thought I’d never hear come from her mouth.
Her attainment in school has increased as she is not being removed from the classroom – she is in class for 100% of the time now and is achieving in all areas of her life.
I finally feel I have my daughter back, I have such a special relationship with her now as we have both engaged equally in the mentoring programme. We have a new bond now, one full of hugs, fun, laughter and a mutual respect.
I feel so blessed to have had to opportunity to attend the Mentoring Programme. I have seen changes in my daughter I didn’t think we’re possible. I felt the path we were on was one of destruction and I couldn’t see how things could ever improve, but they have – Beyond our dreams!