Riders with Autism Part 1 – Understanding Autism

This upcoming series has been a long time in the making and I am so excited to finally share it with you! The TR barn I work for has us make goals every year, and 2 years ago one of my goals was to learn more about teaching riders with Autism. I finally compiled all the information I gathered over those past 2 years into the following series, “Teaching Tips for Riders with Autism.” Please include any information you have to add in the comments!

Over the next few days I will be posting the following topics:

  • Understanding Autism: Helpful Concepts
  • Preparation
  • Lesson Planning, Progression, Strategies
  • Teaching Techniques
  • Communication Techniques
  • Behavior Management and Meltdowns

Without further ado, I present to you…

Teaching Tips for Riders with Autism – Part 1: Understanding Autism

What is Autism

I am not going to tell you what Autism is. You probably already know, and there are plenty of books and articles out there for that! However, if you are new to disabilities, as I was when I first entered the field of TR, here are some good sources for doing your own studying up:

Helpful Concepts

What I am going to tell you are some concepts that have helped me understand my riders with Autism a lot better! There is a lot of research on autism happening and new things are being learned every day, so I’m NOT saying this is the hard proven truth, but these concepts have helped make sense out of things for me. I hope it helps you!

Sensory Overload

  • Sources
  • Concepts
    • Individuals with autism have neurological issues with sensory integration and information processing.
    • Often they can only process one sense at a time.
    • So they focus on only hearing, seeing, touching, smelling, or tasting.
    • Add more than one sensory input and their brain cannot effectively process everything.
  • This results in
    • heightened sensory information
    • conflicting sensory input
    • overloaded circuits
    • over stimulation, too much input, they become hyper aware of everything
    • they can’t adapt or handle it, feel overwhelmed, out of control, and under attack
    • they cannot look and listen at the same time
    • they can’t hear parts of words like consonants
    • they can’t bear touch, which often makes their skin feel on fire, so they cannot be soothed normally
    • (at least until their brain completes the processing)
  • Which causes
    • The downward spiral of the “Sensory Funnel” coined by Asperger Experts:
    • they go into defense/survival mode – their own little world of anxiety and lack of awareness, in which they self soothe in their own way, often with repetitive actions; therefore…
    • they can’t focus on the real world – only on what they allow into their own little world, like video games and fixations; therefore…
    • doing tasks takes forever – because they switch between their own little world and the task in order to self protect and cope; therefore…
    • they are difficult to teach – because when they are in defense mode they can’t focus and don’t care about learning; therefore…
    • lack of social skills – because it’s too difficult to be in the real world so they don’t observe or learn social skills; therefore…
    • lack of confidence and friends – due to lack of social skills; therefore…
    • lack of emotional skills – due to poor coping methods and being unable to express emotions
  • Implications
    • Knowing how their brain processes sensory information helps us understand and communicate with individuals with Autism.
      • Don’t always require them to look at you and listen at the same time
      • Adapt the environment to decrease sensory stimulation
      • Speak clearly and simply, if needed
      • Be careful with touch – firm pressure is better than soft, let them know when you will touch where
      • Use preferred textures and slowly integrate non-preferred sensory input
    • Focus on addressing sensory issues first
      • Current methods tend to focus on fixing emotional skills first, because that is the biggest behavior problem we see.
      • However, we need to fix the sensory overload FIRST because this is the root of emotional/behavior problems. Fix the sensory issues and the rest will improve – at least as much as it can for that individual.
      • Many individuals with mild Autism (previously called Aspergers) just need someone to teach them a better way.

For more information watch the “Sensory Funnel” video from Asperger Experts!


  • Source
  • Concepts
    • Individuals with Autism are unable to “mentalize” or “attribute mental states to others” (Firth 99)
    • They have a hard time with or cannot:
      • predict relationships between what they see an what people are thinking
      • infer, conclude, attribute feelings to others
      • unconsciously automatically read another’s mind – unlike typical individuals, who are usually able to tell what others are thinking and know
      • understand a speaker’s intentions in action and communication
      • communicating (due to all the above)
      • learning (due to all the above) – note:
        • The ability to mentalize happens around 18 months and expedites the learning of language, appropriate behavior, and everything in general.
        • Not being able to mentalize stunts the learning of individuals with Autism. They can learn in others ways, such as through logic, but it takes longer
  • Implications
    • “Just as it is possible to make allowances for people who can’t see color, so it is possible to make allowances for people who can’t read minds” (Firth 97)
    • For more great info read her book! (LINK)

Claudine’s Perspectives

  • Source
  • Concepts
    • Individuals with Autism are stuck in primitive reactions of self preservation.
    • They were unable to deal with the shock of birth.
      • how their connection to their mother was so “cruelly interrupted”
      • how their or their body is now separate from their mother’s.
    • They are unable to grow a “psychic body envelope”
      • they cannot grow their own physical and emotional “skin” to protect themselves from the outside world
      • the disconnect between their physical and mental states result in no sense of their own body or self
      • physically they have a hard time separating their body from others – Ex) they use others’ hands to do thing for themselves
      • mentally they have a hard time separating their emotions from others – Ex) they are hypersensitive to others’ emotions, they have a hard time being in the presence of another person, being talked to or looked at endangers them
    • They cannot understand space or time
      • due to lack of awareness of their own body
      • they cannot understand the space around them, they tend to live in a 1D or 2D world
      • they become too fixed on details to take in the whole picture
      • they cannot deal with change in space or time, they tend to live in fixed time expressed by stereotypical behaviors
      • like a baby, they see things in snapshots but cannot relate it to their surroundings nor concentrate on it long enough to integrate the information with their needs and actions
    • The world becomes a terrifying place
      • DW Winnicot theorizes that a child’s anxieties are disintegrating into little pieces, continuously falling, and having no connection of their body
      • Their psyche cannot cope, so the world becomes terrifying, and their goal becomes to self protect not communicate
    • They resort to primitive reactions of self preservation
      • They put up many defenses against sensory experience
      • Ironically “they are starved of the very thing they need to produce continual growth”
  • Implications – how the horse helps
    • The horse offers security
      • Riding takes them back to a familiar place as before the shock of birth.
      • Riding resembles being in the womb: the pace like the mother walking, the rhythm like the mother’s heartbeat, the horse makes no demands, the child is attached to a large warm being.
      • This security allows them to restart the process of accepting sensations and integrating them into their person.
    • The horse provides sensory input and integration
      • Contact – just sitting on the saddle forces contact with the seat and horse
      • Movement – the walking of the horse offers continuous sensory input
      • Posture – riding causes correct posture, which improves sensory integration
      • Pleasure – the child learns to enjoy the sensory input
      • The child learns that good sensations can come from the outside, not just danger, and that they can use their body, use objects, and gain self awareness
    • The horse helps develop a sense of body, time and space
      • Through sensory integration the child develops a “psychic body envelope” and feels his body is put together, learning the difference between inside and outside his body, leading to an awareness of his own identity
      • Activities like throwing objects on the ground help them discover the concept of death
    • The horse gives confidence
      • The rider realizes if he can do this, he can do others things in the world, a whole new concept
    • The horse is mediator with the instructor and the outside world
      • The child is thrown into a relationship with the pony because he is in contact with the pony. First he bonds with the pony.
      • Because the instructor is also in contact with the pony, by extension the child comes into relationship with the instructor. He extends the bond with the pony to include the instructor and mother. Claudine incorporate the mother into the lessons to allow this.
      • Lastly they tend to abandon the pony and run all over “to establish markers and experience the comfort and security of returning to the pony’s protective presence; the fact that he wants to break away demonstrates a sense of security.”
    • To sum it up:
      • “What role does the pony have in all this? Firstly, it carries them, it resonates, it invites all sorts of muscles, especially those concerned with balance, to start working. It moves, something taking the rider by surprise; it stops, occasionally without being asked to. It is warm; it feels strong. The dust it kicks up can sting the eyes, and occasionally, it trembles. Now and then it can make the rider a little nervous, and it can make him feel proud of himself. It can annoy him or calm him; it can make him want to sing and sometimes to shed a tear. It can knock into things and make the rider watch out where he is going; it makes him aware that there are always new circumstances to he has to earn to watch out and e prepared for the unexpected. Finally, it unconsciously rectifies imbalances in the body and makes the rider feel better because of being better balanced.” (p. 123)

That’s all for today! Coming up next: Preparing (for teaching your rider).

What other concepts have helped you? Please leave a comment!

Sources (for this whole series)

  1. AspergerExperts.com. “Sensory Funnel.”
  2. Baker, Jed. No More Meltdowns: Positive Strategies for Managing and Preventing Out-Of-Control Behavior.
  3. Firth, Uta. Autism: Explaining the Enigma. Second Edition 2003. Backwell Publishing, MA.
  4. Gabriels, R.L., Psy.D. “NSC Positive Behavior Management Strategies.” Handout. Based on Growing up with Autism: Working with School-age Children and Adolescents. 2007.
  5. Grandin, Temple, Ph.D. “Teaching Tips for Children and Adults with Autism.” Indiana Resource Center for Autism. December 2002. http://www.iidc.indiana.edu/?pageId=601
  6. LaBrecque, Dr. Karolina. “INTEGRATING EAAT INTO DIFFERENT THERAPEUTIC APPROACHES IN AUTISM.” 2014 PATH Intl Conference 2014. www.thehealinghorses.com
  7. Lutz, Susan. “Communication Strategies, Development, and Tools for Participants.” 2012 PATH Region 5 Conference handout.
  8. McDowell, Susan, M.S. “TOOLS from the AUTISM SPECTRUM DISORDERS SURVIVAL KIT.” 2013 Seminar Notes.
  9. O’Connor, Keith and Busacca, Anthony. “Behind the Behavior.” Spring 2014 PATH Intl STRIDES. 1/6/2015
  10. Pelletier-Milet, Claudine. Riding on the Autism Spectrum: How Horses Open New Doors for Children with ASD: One Teacher’s Experiences Using EAAT to Instill Confidence and Promote Independence
  11. PATH Intl Precautions & Contraindications


Note: This is not professional advice, this is a blog. I am not liable for what you do with or how you use this information. The activities explained in this blog may not be fit for every rider, riding instructor, or riding center depending on their current condition and resources. Use your best personal judgement!

5 thoughts on “Riders with Autism Part 1 – Understanding Autism

  1. Thank you for a very well summarized post. It was good to see many of the points put into a succinct article. I look forward to reading your future posts.

  2. Agian and always thanks. your willingness to share what you have researched is invaluable. Looking forward to more posts.

  3. I would like to thank you for the efforts you have put in wriitng this website. I am hoping to check out the same high-grade blog posts by you later on as well. In fact, your creative wriitng abilities has motivated me to get my own website now

  4. I have a son who is on the spectrum and also has learning disabilities. He is high functioning. He has been riding independently for over a year now. I can honestly say that his self-esteem has greatly improved. His focus is better when riding. His social skills are improving also.

    • That is so great to hear, I’m so glad riding has been beneficial for him! It’s always encouraging to hear client stories, since we instructors only see what happens in the arena. Thank you for sharing.

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