By Sheryl Barto
More than one parent has remarked, upon watching a therapeutic “play-date” session in progress at Carbondale’s Smiling Goat Ranch, “This looks like a bunch of kids are just playing together outside!” What the words of this sentiment cannot express is the degree of wonder in their voices. Yes, Smiling Goat provides a beautiful outdoor setting; there’s a playground with lots of toys and pets running around and plenty of youthful laughter. It’s all very idyllic and often, peaceful. But the child that these parents are watching most closely may never have played in a group like this before. His or her autism likely made communication and interpersonal interaction difficult or even impossible. Many parents have shared that what their children are able to experience and accomplish while they are “playing” at Smiling Goat Ranch had previously seemed like a wishful dream.
The work that goes on at Smiling Goat in preparation for each play-date is rooted in both science and love. Smiling Goat is an affiliate of the Horse Boy and uses its Movement Method, which means that the ultimate goal for each client is to experience the rhythmic motion of the carefully trained horses at the ranch in an effort to flood their brains with the hormone oxytocin. When this is successful, many autistic behaviors and coping mechanisms decrease in frequency and become less disabling, making it more possible for the brain to learn and for the child to communicate. But because each autistic child is different, this is a goal and not a requirement; although many clients are easily persuaded to sit in the saddle within minutes of arriving, others take weeks or months to be ready. Some parents worry about this “waste” of time, that this is yet another thing their autistic child is failing to do correctly or quickly enough.
But what the community that has developed at Smiling Goat soon helps these parents to see is that there is no “correctly” or “quickly enough” at a Horse Boy play-date. Each autistic child represents an opportunity to see the world differently, to use the gifts of empathy and patience to creatively change the environment in ways that suit the child so that the incredible (but sometimes hidden) gifts of autism can be seen more clearly. The more global opportunity in this experience is that while autistic children often provide an extreme and obvious need for this sort of flexibility and perspective-taking, every human being can benefit from communities that encourage and develop empathy, patience, and the practice of celebrating differences.
One young Smiling Goat client was diagnosed with autism at just over two years old. His parents were told that he would never speak, let alone be able to cope with the outside world. He first visited us when he was four years old, where a play-date environment tailored to his interests and passions is set up for him every time. We discovered he is drawn to letters and spelling, so all sorts of interactive opportunities to spell (magnets, painting on horses, labeling everything) were implemented. Not only did he reveal his incredibly advanced ability to spell long and complicated words correctly, he was soon running, shouting, and interacting with other people and animals. Later, he was able to actually tell his parents in his own words that he was having fun and asked about the horses by name! “The only way for me to describe our experience here is – life changing,” said the young boy’s father. Furthermore, all of the language-based activities the volunteers developed for him are now used in other play-dates with other clients to engage them and develop literacy skills, thus enhancing their current experiences and future abilities. This is just one example of how an inclusive, supportive community can use autism (or other human challenges) as an opportunity to grow stronger and help more people to feel welcomed and successful.
If you’d like to learn more about the community and services at Smiling Goat Ranch, please consider participating in the second annual Autism Awareness Walk, which will begin at the Carbondale rodeo grounds on June 10 (free registration is at 1 p.m. and the walk will proceed down the Rio Grande Trail at 2 p.m.). Participants who are able to raise and contribute $100 will receive a free T-shirt. The walk will be followed by a party at the ranch at 271 Willow Lane. For more information, visit www.facebook.com/smilinggoatranch or contact director Sheryl Barto at firstname.lastname@example.org or 970-379-1383.