Friday, September 26, 2008

Horse Therapy

I can count the number of times I've been on a horse. Truth be told, I've never been on one. A few years ago, my youngest daughter took horseback riding lessons. I stayed as close as I dared while she rode the horse picked out for her, but I was never tempted to scale the mighty mountain of a horse.

Even as a child, when I crouched under my bedcovers and read Black Beauty into the night, or years later, as I breathlessly watched Robert Redford effortlessly work his magic in The Horse Whisperer, I was determined that "East is East, and West is West, and never the twain shall meet."

My daughter, thankfully, had no such reservations about hopping up on one of these magnificent beasts. As I tiptoed around them, she learned everything she could about the care and feeding of horses. She cleaned their hooves, spent countless hours brushing them down, and in no time at all, she was able to prepare a horse for riding in a matter of minutes.

I stood in awe as she even managed to win a battle of wills with one particularly rebellious stallion. In the end, they became fast friends. This shouldn't have come as a surprise. The horse is a social animal, forming strong bonds with members of its herd. As I stood at a safe distance, it became obvious, too, that horses possess almost a sixth sense, picking up on subtle social cues. If my daughter was feeling 'blue,' her new best friend dropped his rebel-without-a-cause routine and became gentler with her.

As a result, her self-esteem increased dramatically during the years she spent with him. She grew into a confident woman, devoid of body image issues, and always eager to climb another mountain.

I found it interesting, therefore, to read that "riding horses can help the disabled physically, by strengthening muscle tone and learning balance. But, riding also increases self-confidence and awareness of one's body, according to those involved in horse therapy programs." Hippotherapy (the word 'hippotherapy' comes from the Greek 'hippos,' meaning horse and 'therapy,' meaning care. Thus, hippotherapy is the utilization of the horse for therapeutic purposes rather than equestrian goals. Source: The Canadian Therapeutic Riding Association) "may also affect psychological, cognitive, behavioural and communication functions for clients of all ages. Clients who may benefit from hippotherapy can have a variety of diagnoses: examples include cerebral palsy, multiple sclerosis, developmental delay, traumatic brain injury, stroke, autism, and learning or language disabilities."

In combination with other therapeutic treatments, such as music or art therapy, service dogs, occupational therapy, intense early intervention (Applied Behaviour Analysis), speech therapy, and physical therapy, just to name a few, horse therapy can sometimes achieve amazing results.

My daughter asked me recently if I'd be interested in taking riding lessons with her. Maybe it's time to befriend my own Black Beauty, and take a page from others who have benefited from the deep connection they've forged with horses. Time to get off my high horse, for who knows, maybe this will be another golden opportunity for another mother-daughter bonding experience.

Friday, September 19, 2008

Art as Healer

Neil MacDonald

I have a confession to make. I still get a kick out of getting down and dirty with anything resembling goopyness. Whether it's Playdo, cookie dough, or good old-fashioned mud from the garden, I'm in heaven. Not that my creative urges are expressed through the medium of art - my inner editor continues to slink in the room whenever it sniffs out a primal urge to throw paint on canvas - but there's something...well, fun about letting go of my daily to-do list and allowing the kid in me to play.

My daughter and I took a beginner's art class together last year. We chose to do this because as grownups, neither one of us had dared to bare our souls on paper via the paintbrush. But there's something exhilarating about throwing on an old shirt and letting the paint fly. (Literally. I went through three of my best pants before finally realizing paint is like a heat-seeking missile homing in on 'dry-clean only' fabric.)

It turned out to be not only a wonderful mother-daughter bonding experience, but a golden opportunity to recapture a little of our childhoods. In short, we had fun. After we were able to escort our Inner Saboteurs out the door, we relaxed and let go of the outcome. It didn't matter that we didn't create works of art fit to hang in the National Gallery of Canada. We felt an immediate sense of fulfillment, and a desire to try more new things.

In the same way, art therapy is a healing, creative process for the intellectually disabled. According to the Ontario Art Therapy Association, "art is the tool for communication, self-examination and healing. As well, the creative act, in itself, can be healing." To immerse oneself in the creative process is to open a portal to another world, where it is easier to express one's feelings. It's a safe place, and just as music therapy is used to increase self-esteem, communication skills, and social interaction, art therapy is another tool used by a skilled therapist to encourage the intellectually disabled to explore their inner world.

"Some remarkable art has come from people with autism of all levels. They can communicate fluently what is hard for them to put into words." (See Daniel Muller and Adrian Tarpey, for example.) announced their 1st Annual Art Contest last week, for any persons with an intellectual disability living in Ontario. As I read that "judging by the Awards Panel will be chaired by Andrew Hamilton, Canadian landscape painter," I imagined what it would feel like to give the Inner Editor the heave-ho and submit one's work to the scrutiny of others. Exciting, exhilarating, powerful, I thought.

By encouraging the intellectually disabled to explore their creativity through art, and therefore giving them a place to heal and grow, we are giving them an opportunity to dare to dream.

For more information on art therapy, go to: The Canadian Art Therapy Association
Art Therapy in Canada
Re-Visioning Therapeutic Services
Art Therapy & Autism
Autism Teaching Tools
Kerry's Place Autism Services
Art Now for Autism

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Music is the Key

My brother fell in love when he was only ten years old. In fact, it was love at first sight. The moment he set eyes on his Christmas gift that year, there was no looking back. His first guitar opened up a whole new world for him, and he would play for hours, lost in another world. Nothing much has changed. He still locks himself in his room and enters a world where unspeakable joy threads its way through his fingers and into the strings of his guitar. Nothing else can lift him from the doldrums like an hour spent strumming on his handmade acoustic guitar. It was, and still is, a place to go when he needs to fill his tank. But it's more than that: music feeds his soul, nourishes every part of him, and when he dips his hand in the well of creative exploration, his spirit expands and lets in more light.

Of course, he would wave away my poetic ramblings. "It just makes me feel good, that's all, pure and simple," he would say.

For one breathless moment, there are no need for words, no expectations, either from the outer world or himself, and when he's on stage, he experiences a deeper connection with others.

It should come as no surprise, then, that his son, Christian, is a gifted drummer. Already, at eight years old, he has knocked the socks off of older, more experienced drummers. "How did he learn to play like that?" they ask. His father merely shakes his head and says, "I don't know, he just picked up the sticks one day, and away he went!"

Christian has autism, and according to the Autism Canada Foundation, "it has been noted time and again that autistic children evidence unusual sensitivities to music. Some have perfect pitch, while many have been noted to play instruments with exceptional musicality."

Which begs the question: Why is music therapy so effective in unlocking doors that have hitherto been closed within a developmentally, emotionally, or physically challenged person? Well, "music unlocks abilities" within a person. A trained music therapist will carefully assess the person and determine his or her particular needs and strengths. By creating a safe environment, where words are unnecessary, improvisation is encouraged, and creativity is given room to flourish, amazing things unfold. A nonverbal child speaks for the first time, or makes eye contact, for example.

Who benefits from music therapy? For those with acquired brain injury, autism, and other developmental disabilities, music can give them permission to explore their creativity, and an open space to communicate and interact with others.

"Music can heal. It can do more than ease the pain. It can throw a lifeline to kids who can't be reached in any other way." Paul McCartney

To learn more about music therapy, check out the Canadian Association for Music Therapy (CAMT Conference 2009, A Song for Everyone: The Voice of Music Therapy, May 7-9, 2009); Canadian Music Therapy Trust Fund; the Laurier Centre for Music Therapy Research; and

Saturday, September 6, 2008

The Magic of Dogs

I woke up this morning with a bad taste in my mouth. The familiar aftertaste of a recurring dream that won't leave me alone. It has dogged me all my life, pardon the pun. I'm back in school, lost in a maze of institutional-grey hallways. I enter a classroom, only to realize that an exam is underway. Of course, I haven't prepared for it, and since I had skipped most of the classes, I don't stand a chance of passing what amounts to a matter of life and death.

I'm aware that this dream is as common as hen's teeth, shared by most of the population of the world, but's my dream, filled as it is with the anxiety of not measuring up, of failing at something critical to one's survival. And I'd really rather not revisit those agonizing moments spent staring out of countless windows and dreaming I'm on the other side of them.

No doubt this dream was pulled from my dream repository because it's the first week of school. As I lay in bed, the covers pulled up to my chin, a memory flooded back, complete with all the sights and sounds I'd managed to store away...deep in the coffers where all bad memories molder. I'm standing in the schoolyard, outside the kindergarten class, holding onto my mother's hand. It's the first day of school, the first day I'd ever been away from my mother's comforting presence. I'm rooted to the spot, my brand spanking new Mary Janes and pastel green Sunday best dress not providing the usual solace.

I stare fixedly at the door, as if waiting for the train to make its way down the tracks at High Noon. An odd cage-like area attached to the classroom reminds me of the neighbour's dog pen. I want my mom to go in with me, but since that's clearly not in the cards, I settle for Blackie, our gangling black Labrador retriever. I imagine him fitting his paw through my arm and escorting me into the classroom, like a gentleman from a bygone era escorting a lady in to dinner.

It would have been nice, as the class sat on the floor in a semicircle, to lean into Blackie, allowing him to take the weight of my anxiety. I knew enough not to ask. Dogs weren't allowed anywhere, least of all in the hallowed halls of a public school.

Later, as I read of the families battling for the rights of their autistic children, I thought of how Blackie could have helped me over the initial hurdle of the dreaded first day, and how service dogs are able to ease children with autism into potentially stressful situations, relieving their fears and providing a safe harbour.

My golden retriever nudges me with his nose as I sit at the keyboard. I should have named him Nana, like the Newfoundland dog in Peter Pan, for he fills all the requirements of a nurse. I can see why golden retrievers are a popular choice for dog services such as Autism Dog Services and National Service Dogs. The dogs undergo rigorous training, and at the end of the day, are more than a companion for children with autism and other special needs. The dogs have a calming effect, and allow the children to connect with people. Some children become more verbal, sleep through the night for the first time in years, and, more importantly, achieve a sense of belonging. The dogs are an endless font of unconditional love, a safe haven in a world that is not always accepting of who you are.

Call it 'magic', if you like, but the fact remains: service dogs help to "build bridges...a pathway to inclusion for persons with intellectual disability", through a mysterious connection with their charges.

They clearly have a powerful impact on the lives of thousands of children. Even as some school boards are banning service dogs from school premises, there are stories of dogs accompanying families on trips to the grocery store, and one dog went along for the ride when a family visited Disney World.

A little magic goes a long way. So for the sake of those children who find it easier to navigate through life with a Nana by their side, let's open all the doors in our communities. Bob Dylan said it best: "The slow one now will later be fast...and the first one now will later be last. For the times they are a-changin'."

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