Riders with Autism Part 4 – Teaching Techniques

Now that you’ve got some resources for your lesson plan, here are some resources for teaching techniques on interacting with riders and dealing with specific behaviors. Again, most of this info is from Susan McDowell’s seminar “TOOLS from the AUTISM SPECTRUM DISORDERS SURVIVAL KIT,” and Claudine Pelletier-Milet’s book Riding on the Autism Spectrum.

Riders with Autism Part 4 – Teaching Techniques

  • Observe closely
    • Because they have build a protective shell around them, you will need to pay close attention to nonverbal behavior.
    • Every gesture, reaction, preference, registration of their surroundings, emotion, sound they hear, where they are looking, what they are feeling.
    • This gives you clues to their inner world, and how you should react.
    • Ex) If they are listening to the rain, they may not be able to listen to you, so join them and talk about how what they hear is the rain.
  • Meet them where they’re at
    • Instead of forcing them to change, adapt and meet them where they are at. Then they will be more likely to progress with you. Let them tell you how they want to emerge and engage in the real world.
    • However, “Don’t try to invade the place they are “hiding”, this only produces negative reactions.” (Pelletier-Milet)
  • Beware of and address sensory issues
    • Remember the “Sensory Funnel”(first concept on the Understanding Autism post)? We need to address sensory issues first because overloadis the root of emotional and behavioral problems.
    • Minimize sensory triggers (in general and their specific triggers)
      • Touch
        • Don’t touch unless you know their preferences or they indicate it’s okay
        • They tend to prefer firm pressure on wrist/forearm and intermittent touch. Ex) leading them out by the wrist, or firmly putting their hand where it belongs instead of continuous hand over hand
        • Be sure to tell their sidewalkers how to appropriate support/touch the rider
        • Desensitize slowly over time (short hand over hand, to longer)
        • Use touch to motivate (“hold the reins or we’ll help you”)
      • Smell
        • Keep the arena clean (or they may focus on the poop smell)
      • Sight
        • Lighting – may need to dim lights or adjust light source. “Some autistic people are bothered by visual distractions and fluorescent lights. They can see the flicker of the 60-cycle electricity.” Try to work in natural lighting. “If the lights cannot be avoided, use the newest bulbs you can get. New bulbs flicker less.” (Grandin)
        • Color – remove offensive colors
      • Sounds
        • “The fear of a dreaded sound can cause bad behavior. If a child covers his ears, it is an indicator that a certain sound hurts his ears.” (Grandin)
        • May need to remove distracting sounds (tractors, people, etc.)
        • If you notice they are distracted by sounds, explain to them what they are hearing, give them time to process, then redirect when appropriate
      • Create a chill out sensory free zone – a place with little sensory input and their preferred sensory comforts, where they can be as long as they need to until they are ready to enter learning mode
      • For more ideas see Sensory Strategies from the Indiana Resource Center for Autism 
  • Make yourself non-threatening.
    • Calm voice
    • Relaxed posture
    • Approach from the side
    • Tell them where you are and when/where/why you need to touch them
  • Communication Techniques
    • Speak standing to their side
      • they often shy away from noise directly in front of them, until they let you in to their world.
    • Simple language and short sentences, like speaking to children, in a more simple way
    • Communicate to one sense at a time.
      • “Some nonverbal children and adults cannot process visual and auditory input at the same time. They are mono-channel. They cannot see and hear at the same time. They should not be asked to look and listen at the same time. They should be given either a visual task or an auditory task. Their immature nervous system is not able to process simultaneous visual and auditory input.” (Grandin)
      • If the rider cannot process visual and auditory at the same time, they cannot look at your while you talk. So talk without demonstrating, or demonstrate with talking.
    • Allow processing time.
      • Before repeating an instruction, and for each step of a request.
      • Tell sidewalkers to wait ___ seconds before helping.
    • Give only a few instructions at a time.
      • Often people with ASD have problems remembering sequences.
      • Either give a few steps at a time or write down all the steps on a piece of paper.
  • Verbal Prompting
    • Use less words, simple vocab, short sentences (if they have auditory processing problems)
    • Use familiar words/phrases (from your research on the rider)
    • Give verbal prompts to prepare them. – Ex) before halting tell them “We’re going to halt, so we say “whoa.” Can you say “whoa”? If they don’t respond, say “let’s say whoa.” If still no response, have the sidewalkers say “whoa” then use Hand Over Hand to halt.
    • Avoid direct commands. Instead say “You need to…” or “Let’s…”
    • Be careful with questions such as “Can you…” as they might say “No!” or answer literally “Yes!” If they say “No,” then respond “Okay, then I will help you.”
    • Help them figure things out. Don’t just tell them, rather “Be a co-creator to their experience”
  • Physical Prompting
    • Use firm touch instead of light.
    • Keep your hand open/flat/closed to avoid accidental pinching and grabbing.
    • Use Hand Over Hand initially to start associating words with actions.
      • Ex) to hold the reins, press their hand firmly on the reins and say “hold please,” if they hold them then give praise, if they drop them then try again.
    • Use Hand Over Hand to start off the movement but let them finish it.
      • Ex) to steer, start moving their hand the correct direction but let them finish the movement.
    • Use Hand Over Hand on one hand only (on both hand can be distracting).
      • Ex) when turning use hand over hand to help the turning rein only
    • Use Hand Over Hand if the individual has trouble with sequencing.
      • “Sequencing is very difficult for individuals with severe autism. Sometimes they do not understand when a task is presented as a series of steps. An occupational therapist successfully taught a nonverbal autistic child to use a playground slide by walking his body through climbing the ladder and going down the slide. It must be taught by touch and motor rather than showing him visually.” (Grandin)
  • Imitation and repetition
    • Don’t force him to do something just to complete a task. Help him learn how through repetition and patience. Even if he doesn’t get it at first. It may take 15 minutes or several lessons!
    • Ex) When teaching him to put the rings on the pole, first he grabs the rings and holds on. Instead of forcing him with hand over hand, show him how to do it by demonstrating yourself. If he throws it on the ground, again just show him how to do it by demonstrating yourself. As he does different things with the rings he is learning about the space around him. Eventually he will learn he can put the ring on the pole.
  • Give specific praise.
    • Instead of just “good job” or “you’re good at…” be specific, such as “good work bringing your hand to your pocket!”
    • Praise their skills (which they think they can improve) not their abilities (which are harder to improve) (AspergerExperts)
    • Praise their riding. Claudine told a story about telling one rider sincerely “you are a good rider!” and it drastically changed the rider’s behavior and relationship to her. I did this with one of my riders when he was having a frustrating moment, and he gave me good long look and decided to keep trying.
    • Praise helps put their guard down. They may not often hear they are good at something.
    • Tell them the truth. Ex) When one rider berates himself, Claudine tells him “No…you are a gentle young man and also a great horseman.”
  • Use routines and schedules
    • Use diagrams, schedule boards, activity sequences, or picture stories to tell how the lesson will progress
    • When there is an unexpected change in routine, call the parent to let them know.
    • Let them arrange the tasks themselves before the lesson
  • Intentionally structure change into the routine.
    • Consider slowly integrating change with the rider’s permission.
    • Or have 1 thing new and different each week.
    • Give them time to transition from one activity to another.
    • Use diagrams or picture stories to introduce changes to routine.
  • To prepare for being assigned a new horse
    • During lessons take turns riding each other’s horses – in the middle of a lesson, switch!
  • Match the horse’s movement to the rider’s needs.
    • If they’re wound up, use smooth movements and quiet riding.
    • If they’re seeking input, use changes in rhythm and transitions within and between gaits.
  • Use music
    • Can help calm riders down.
    • Can help engage riders.
    • Can help control behavior (only play when _____)
  • Use visual cue cards or motions
    • Some people with ASD only think in pictures. For “up” and “down” demonstrate by throwing a ball or having picture cards.
    • When using picture cards, have the whole word on the same page at the picture, to help associate the word with the picture.
    • Some people do not understand drawings, so use actual photos when possible. (Grandin)
    • For those with visual processing issues, use black text on colored paper such as light blue or green. Find which color they like best. Bright yellow might hurt their eyes. (Grandin)
  • Use their interests
    • If they have fixations, use them to motivate!
    • If they love a cartoon character, incorporate it into lesson activities
    • If they love a texture, use it on the reins or saddle
    • For example, see this Fun Video Friday
  • Use tactile props
    • “In older nonverbal children and adults touch is often their most reliable sense. It is often easier for them to feel.” Teach them horse parts by feeling the parts on a plastic horse and their own horse. Teach them the lesson schedule by feeling representations of each step. Prepare them before riding by giving them their helmet to feel 15 minutes before mounting. (Grandin)
  • Use fantasy and play
    • Not all people with ASD can use fantasy to deal with fears, but if they are able to imagine it can be very helpful. Ex) if they are afraid of the trail, pretend to be knights
  • Use the horses as teachers
    • Let them watch the horse poop. If they are afraid of what comes out of the body, it may help reassure them.
    • Let them watch the horse whinny. If they have trouble talking, it may help them figure out how to use their breath.
    • Let them watch the horse eat, and help feed it. If they have trouble with food, it may help them branch out.
    • Use the horse’s body language to teach them about communication.

Specific behaviors

  • Physical aggression, pinching, biting.
    • Deep pressure may help curb it. Have them wear a tight vest.
    • Put palms together and press hard
    • Give them something firm to squeeze
  • Avoiding touch
    • Notice their tactile sensitivities and adapt
    • If they move away from touch, don’t use supportive holds (unless really needed)
    • If they don’t like their hands touched, instead of Hand Over Hand, try touching the upper arm or manipulating the reins.
  • Seeking touch
    • Incorporate preferred sensations into the lesson
    • If they like movement, use it as reward
    • If they like a certain texture, use it on the reins or saddle
  • Auditory issues
    • If they don’t like certain sounds, avoid them
    • Use music to help calm or engage them
    • Adapt your tone of voice and speed of speech
    • Watch how many people are talking at once. More than one might be overstimulating! If so, assign only 1 person to talk at a time. Ex) When the instructor talks everyone listens. When steering, only the sidewalker on the turning side talks.
  • High energy, hard to focus
    • Engage them in an activity immediately
    • Trot to give them input and focus
    • Ride outside
    • Incorporate more games
  • Poor self-regulation
    • Ride outside
    • Keep consistent lesson routines
    • Keep tasks clear, simple, and easy to accomplish
    • Then work toward small challenges in self-regulation
  • Repeating words
    • Interrupt them to stop the stream
    • Focus on key words, then redirect with new appropriate words
    • Repeat back to them to let them know you are listening
    • Incorporate their word fixations – Ex) my rider sang electric slide for steering “to the right, to the right, to the left, to the left!”
  • Self-Stimulation
    • May mean they are seeking sensory input = give them what they need in an appropriate outlet
    • May mean they feel the need to retreat into self-protection = don’t prevent it, meet them where they’re at
  • Repetitive actions, rocking
    • They are often seeking vestibular (balance) and proprioceptive (muscle/joint) stimulation, so do activities that feed this need.
    • Two point – gives weight bearing through the arms and legs
    • Put hands on horse’s neck – weight bearing on arms as feels horse’s movement
    • Trotting – stronger input into joints
    • Carry a grooming bucket
    • Groom with one hand on the horse while the other holds the grooming tools
    • While grooming reach high and low
  • Hand flapping, fidgeting
    • Give them a fidget toy to keep their hands busy
    • If they throw the toy, let them choose between two other toys they might like
    • Use Hand Over Hand if needed. Praise him even when it takes Hand over Hand.
    • Use a vest to add pressure security. “Some hyperactive autistic children who fidget all the time will often be calmer if they are given a padded weighted vest to wear. Pressure from the garment helps to calm the nervous system.” (Grandin)
  • Visual Fixations (at lights, fans, etc.)
    • Allow him to look for a while (2 min, Lutz recommends), then say “look at me”
    • Use cards to redirect him to the activity
    • Look for small clues of interest, such as a quick glance away.
  • Snapping, tapping
    • Use rhythm and sound prompts, such as “1, 2, 3, Whoa.”
    • Encourage them to use their own rhythms and voice.

Coming up next: Communication Techniques

Also, I’ve had several readers ask to include information about working with adults and teens with autism, so since I haven’t had as much experience with that end of the age spectrum, I’d like to ask for your suggestions and ideas! Please leave a comment below or use the contact page to send me your experiences, and I’ll include them in the last post in this series on working with teens and adults with autism.

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 onGrowing 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 judgment!

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