BY EMILY GUEVARA
A light brown horse munched grass with its head near the ground as Kelley tried to attach a rope to it. He struggled a bit performing the task, but his therapist came to help.
Once clipped on, Kelley grabbed the rope and said, “Come on, Kite,” as he coaxed the horse back to the fence.
Minutes later, he and his therapist led the horse through an obstacle course made of foam noodles, hula-hoops, poles and cones. As they walked through, there was more coaxing and learning.
“What do you think Kite is trying to tell you?” Peggy Baldwin asked Kelley when the horse stopped. “Does he want to go forward?”
With a little more encouragement, the horse continued walking and finished the course.
The exercise was one of several completed this week by children with autism at a day camp at Camp Tyler Outdoor School.
This is the first year the camp has been offered for these children. Staff at the Treatment and Learning Center for Children with Autism designed it.
Alison Sterken, division director for autism services at the Andrews Center, said more than 30 children ages 2 to 13 signed up for the program.
This includes children who participate in the Andrews Center outreach program with their parents and children who go to the Treatment and Learning Center.
“We’re getting to practice all of our amazing communication and social and behavioral skills out here in a different venue and it’s been an amazing week,” she said.
Ms. Sterken said the idea for the camp came from one of the TLC staff members who also works at Camp Tyler. He planted the seed, and Camp Tyler executive director Debbie Shafer contacted Ms. Sterken about the camp.
A grant from a local organization provided the funding for the children to participate.
The participating children fall on various parts of the autism spectrum, Ms. Sterken said. Some of them have difficulty transitioning from one activity to another. Others have problems communicating. And others struggle with compliance.
“It’s very hard to define it, but every single child has their own challenges that we’re working on, their target behaviors,” Ms. Sterken said.
The students have participated in water- and trail-related activities at the camp. But one of the most memorable activities is possibly the one related to animals.
Every day of this week, the students have participated in horse-related activities through the EAGALA program.
EAGALA stands for Equine Assisted Growth and Learning Association and is a program in which people participate in ground-level activities with horses to learn specific skills and achieve specific goals. It always involves a horse, equine specialist and mental health professional, according to the EAGALA website.
At this camp, it was provided through a partnership between Glenna Wilson of Bent Anchor Ranch in Jacksonville and Peggy Baldwin, a licensed professional counselor. Ms. Wilson provides the animals — in this case horses and a mule — and Ms. Baldwin works with the children, taking them through activities and engaging them in the process.
On Wednesday, the children worked together to design an obstacle course for the animals to go through. In the process, they had to communicate with each other, compromise, and think about how the course would work.
Before the activity, each child selected a small stuffed animal that they had to take care of for the rest of the horse activity time. The goal of that was to encourage them to remember and maintain attention span for an extended period of time, Ms. Baldwin said.
Each child partnered with a TLC therapist for the activities and throughout them the therapists encouraged students to practice communication, eye contact and other skills.
They also practiced encouraging one another while on the sidelines watching their peers lead horses through the obstacle course.
Ms. Baldwin said horses have the ability to reflect and respond to the feelings of the people they are around.
“So in doing this, we have provided something that we do not attempt to control,” she said. “That’s why we’re all on the ground and we never have a saddle or a bridle in their mouth, but the horse comes alongside us as a team player and a teammate and it makes it even more challenging sometimes, but, at the same time, more rewarding as goals are accomplished and steps are made in a positive direction.”
Ms. Sterken said she and the therapists already have seen improvement in some of the children.
“We’ve seen some language come forth that we have not had before,” she said. “And we have had one child who has a very restrictive diet, self-inflicted, who has begun eating fruit. And that may not seem like a big deal, but when your 3-year-old only eats two things, adding watermelon and grapes, which were two of our camp snacks, to the mix is huge because it also gives the parent hope that if he’ll (eat) that, then he’ll eat more.”