Over the summer of 2007 I donated my time to the Equestrian Connection; a therapeutic riding center for handicapped children. Coming from the Black Horse Troop at Culver, I knew all about horses and how to take care of them. Little did I know I would also learn how to care for innocent children with autism.
I spent nearly six hours each day at the stables caring for the horses by turning them out, grooming, and even taking them for lessons. In less than a week I was asked to help out with some of the lessons. I began as a side walker which included walking beside a child while they had a lesson on their pony. No more than a second week had passed and I was asked to start leading the horses. I would lead the horses and have interaction with the children during their lessons. I was spending so much community service time that I was offered a paid position so the following Monday I became a camp counselor.
As a counselor I had over four hours each day of one-on-one time with an assigned camper with a disability. My first camper was Paul, a 10 year-old-child with mild autism and high response. He was easily the most connectable kid in the bunch but still required a great deal of attention. He was very loud and I had to adapt and talk to him quietly to get him to calm down and pay attention. He allowed me to get my bounds, grasp the reigns and get control of the situation at hand. However my second week was not nearly as easy.
Unlike Paul, Charlie was a different matter. With severe autism and low response I didn’t completely understand how to react. The first response he had to the horses was a big “No!” With some guidance from Paul (an expert with autistic children) I was able to communicate and get small responses rather than just single words. We had multiple art sessions and sensory time but after being forced to ride he finally learned to love the experience. Riding is what allowed him to open up to me; a feeling of trust was earned.
I continued to have Charlie for the following three weeks of camp and we formed a strong relationship. I never understood autism and how it affected children but after spending so much time with such a special kid I really loved the work and felt like I made a difference. Not only was it rewarding helping Charlie learn to ride and gain self-confidence, but it also allowed me to see the importance of teaching and being patient.
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