Riders with Autism Part 7 – Teen and Adult Riders with Autism

It’s been a while! Life can do that to you…

During this series on autism I got a few requests for ideas for nonverbal teen and adult riders with autism. I think this is a good topic to address. However I don’t have a ton of experience in this area, so I’ve done some research and asked around. This is not comprehensive, but here are some ideas that I hope will help! Most are geared toward teens and adults, others are just toward adults.

Riders with Autism Part 7 – Teen and Adult Riders with Autism

About Adults with Autism

First off, let’s get a view of what the world of an adult with autism can be like, because this will better help you understand your rider.


  • When they grow up, some expressions of autism decrease, while others remain.
  • Often there are still sensory issues that cause them to feel easily overwhelmed and exhausted
  • Often they have difficulty communicating with and understanding others
  • Some learn to communicate well, others are nonverbal
  • In general, studies show that the majority of adults with autism show improvement over time, even into midlife (Foden, via Baron-Cohen and Shattuck)
    • “The core disabilities of ASD — communication and social deficits and repetitive behaviors and interests — can improve over the course of childhood and adolescence. In fact, higher-functioning ASD is sometimes deemed more a different way of approaching the world than a disability.” (Foden, via Baron-Cohen and Shattuck)

Living situations

  • Live independent/semi-independent
    • may need help with major problems from family or professional
  • Live at home
    • receive government funding
    • may be a part of certified day programs
  • Live in a skill development home
    • Family homes that teach self care, housekeeping, and organize leisure activities
  • Live in a supervised group home
    • Staffed by professionals who help with meals, housekeeping, personal care
    • Staff may always be there, or only visit a few times week
  • Live in an institution
    • Receive constant supervision and assistance

Work situations

  • Some are independent – they work successfully in jobs but with communication difficulties, and at most need encouragement and support
  • Others are supervised – they work under trained managers, and need more nurturing and job training than most

Common Challenges

  • Lack of support services and programs
    • Graduation from high school marks the end of most government supported services. While the government requires that all public schools provide special education, there is no similar “on-stop” shop for services in adulthood (Rehm).
    • Every year 50,000 individuals with autism enter adulthood, increasing the need for more support services in the US (Rehm).
    • The current paradigm of preparing children with autism for adulthood includes addressing their behavior through therapies and teaching job skills. While this is great, little is done to actually provide job opportunities, volunteer opportunities, community activities, and continued education for these same individuals once they enter adulthood. (Rehm)
  • Unemployment
  • Finding housing
  • Self-esteem, confidence,
  • Depression, anxiety
  • Relationships
  • Sensory differences
    • Prevent them from participating in culturally expected ways, inhibiting communication and relationship building
  • Disconnect / Social Isolation
    • Not just feeling isolated, but they actually are isolated due to not having a job or being in college
    • J. Drexel Autism Institute’s research shows that within the first 3 years after high school over 50% of individuals with autism become disconnected from community, no job, no college, no continued learning, etc. (Rehm)
    • Note this is not unique to those with autism, but is a current trend in young people all over the country, particularly those in poor neighborhoods who drop out of high school and can’t find work – but it does “manifest in a particular way” in people on the spectrum (Rehm).

Common Needs and Desires

  • are similar to typical individuals
    • to have friends
    • relationships,
    • families, etc.
  • need life skills
    • safety
    • hygiene
    • social competence
      • how to join a community
    • decision-making
    • self-management
    • leisure
    • communication
    • self-advocacy skills
      • how to speak for their differences and be an ambassador to the community
      • learn about their own disability and be able to tell others about it
    • employment skills
      • how to work in jobs alongside typically developing workers
      • what to say to a boss vs. coworker
      • how to know when you’re finished with a task
      • when it’s okay to take a break
      • all the unwritten rules
      • how to use their strengths (seeing patterns, visual skills, rule followers, discerning, etc.)
  • need support to succeed
    • programs, assistance
    • friendships, mentors
  • need community
    • community opportunities
    • to connect to those with shared interests
    • to have mentors who love and understand them and give feedback
  • need friends
    • typically adults with autism make connections over shared interested (don’t we all)
  • need to be independent
    • as independent as possible!
    • often they learn a skill, but don’t do it independently, and therefore don’t succeed (Rehm)

The above not only helps you understand your rider, but directly impacts how you interact with them and what you work on with them.

Riding Lesson Activities for Adults with Autism

Many teens and adults with autism can work on the same intermediate and advanced skills that you and I can, they will just need adapted teaching and communication methods to learn them.

Work on advanced skills

  • Skills may include:
    • trotting laps and changing directions across the diagonal
    • leg yield
    • 20, 15, 10 meter circles
    • figures 8s, serpentines
    • cantering
    • developing their seat on the lunge line
    • arena awareness while riding in a group
    • poles and jumps

Work on patterns (dressage, drill team, obstacle course)

  • Work toward performing patterns by memory
  • Teach the elements separately, then later combine them into a pattern
  • When teaching the whole pattern, show it to them on paper and have a handout to take home to memorize. Then call the pattern out for them as they ride through it several times. Lastly ask if they would like to ride it again on their own without you calling it out.
    • We have one rider we did this with who after 2 practices was able to ride it without any instructions, and he called out the pattern for himself as he rode!
  • If in a group, have them “follow the leader” through the pattern and take turns being leader

Turn them loose!

  • Work toward complete independence!
  • If they have good balance, letting them ride independently will help them learn a lot faster how to control their horse on their own.
  • Some riders will stop trying once someone helps them out, so unclipping and requiring that they do it themselves is the best response. Be patient!
  • For more info and an example, read this post: Turn ‘Em Loose

Have a reason for games

  • Riders with autism need concrete explanations.
  • Giving the reason for playing a certain game gives them motivation to participate.
  • Tie the reason back to the riding skill or goal they are working toward.

Work toward a show

  • Use shows to set goals and create accomplishments
  • Shows may include the Special Olympics, annual fun shows, local shows, special events, etc.
  • Being able to prepare for an event and win a ribbon can be a huge confidence booster and life changing – see this story for an example

Incorporate grooming and tacking

  • If you can, let them help get their horse ready and put it away.
  • This teaches them responsibility and horse care.
  • This provides time with their horse and time to transition.
    • We find this time is essential to bonding with their horse and helping them prepare for their lesson. Some love to stroke their horse and feel their presence.
    • One of our riders is very sensory and loves to smell her horse while grooming, which helps her adapt and bond. It seems to center her and put her in a good place for her lesson. We have found that she will smell her horse’s head and try to hold it so close the helmet may bother the horse, so we always have a leader stand right in front of the horse’s head to prevent any accidents.
  • This provides opportunities for the rider to practice socializing
    • This is a great time to encourage them to talk with the instructor and volunteers
    • If the rider knows a lot about a certain topic, encourage them to share about it. They may not often be in a position where they know more about something than everyone else AND everyone else is willing to hear about it.
    • Guide them through correct social interactions so they can learn to socialize with others on a positive level.

Speaking of socializing, as riders with autism get older the focus becomes not just riding or behavior, but also relationships and establishing connections with others. They don’t just need riding skills, they need fulfilling lives and friendships.

Facilitate relationships

  • Help them develop relationships and establish connections with volunteers or other riders.
  • Connect them with others with similar interests (horses or other)
  • Put them in group lessons
  • Facilitating social conversation during grooming, riding, etc.

Focus on behavior skills and socialization

  • As teens and adults, they are learning to be an independent adult. So developing social skills is just as important as developing riding skills.
  • Make sure they greet their volunteers by name at the beginning and thank them at the end. If they are nonverbal they can wave or shake hands.
  • Try to keep them in conversation – ask them about their day, their classes, etc.
  • Teach them how to converse – give them suggestions for what to say to people: “Hey there’s Bob, you should ask him how he’s doing.”
  • Make sure they respond to your questions. This is important in the adult world. Make sure they know that when someone talks to them, they need to give some outward response to let us know they heard us.
  • Encourage them to try new things. We find that when riders get anxious, it works well to say, “Let’s just try it and I bet you’ll be fine.” If they are still too anxious, we break it down into smaller steps.

Create a lease program

  • Creates opportunities for independent horse care and bonding with other riders.
  • One barn I worked at created a lease program in which more advanced riders took 1 lesson a week and came on Saturday afternoons for 2 hours to groom, tack, ride, bathe, and hand graze with the goal of doing everything independently, bonding with their horse, and working on what they learned in their lesson that week. The first few weeks were a huge learning curve as they had difficulty getting their horses ready all on their own and needed a lot of help, but it was a great learning experience for all of them and within a month they were able to do it all on their own and make their own decisions about what to do with their time with very little help from the instructor. The neatest part was how the riders bonded and played together while riding. They were all so different but all loved horses, and would set up the arena with their own patterns and play games such as knocking over cones and trying to knock them back up.

Teaching Tips for Adults with Autism

Use their interests

  • To connect – talking with them about their interests helps create a connection; try to find an interest you share
  • To motivate – use in lessons to provide impetus for activities and exercises; use to teach skills – be creative!
  • Enjoy and appreciate their unique perspective and gifts!

Make them feel wanted and included

  • When they arrive say, “It is so good to see you!” or “I’m so glad you’re here!” So many have a hard time socializing they don’t hear that often. Our one rider has responded, “Really?”

Stay calm

  • They will respond to your emotional level, so stay calm and try to impart your calmness to them
  • Even during outbursts, keep your own self control
  • Choose your battles carefully. You must decide whether to push them through a difficulty, break it down into smaller steps, replace it with an alternative, or move on altogether.

Keep communication Simple and Clear

  • Clear and short avoids information overload. If you give them too many words, they may have trouble determining which info is important and what you want from them.
  • Ex) if they have a hard time with right/left, use visuals in the arena (“turn left toward the red C”) or colored wrist bands (“turn right, red”)
  • Ex) to keep their horse on the rail explain, “use your inside leg and outside rein to help the horse stay on the wall” then to remind them “inside leg and outside rein”
  • Ex) when changing directions across the diagonal, say “take a short turn at M, go through X, at K turn left”

Be literal and concrete

  • Adults with autism often take things literally, so avoid figurative speech unless you know they will understand (sarcasm, nicknames, “save your breath,” etc.)
  • Be direct, instead of implying. Ex) Instead of “What was that for?” say “Your horse does not like it when…because…so please…”
  • Use concrete commands instead of questions. Statements are easier to understand, while questions bring another level of meaning in.
  • Facial expressions and social cues may not be as effective, so don’t expect them to be! However, still try to teach them.
  • Be careful with open ended questions. We use them to be polite, but this can confuse the individual about whether they actually have a choice or not. When you do ask open ended questions, accept any answer. Alternatives are “Time to,” “Next let’s,” “Now let’s” etc.

Give processing time

  • They may need time to process before responding.
  • Don’t do anything to distract or confuse them while they are processing (adding more info, gestures, facial expressions, eye contact).
  • Wait at least 10-15 seconds for them to respond in some way, without them feeling rushed or stressed out.

Get a response

  • In the adult world it is important to give a response so the person knows they were heard.
  • Don’t make a request unless you can follow up and help them respond. If they consistently are allowed to not respond, they learn to ignore others when they speak.
  • Be clear about whether you are making a statement or asking a question that needs a response. Make them look and sounds different. For questions, go up in tone and wait with a look of anticipation.
  • Be sensitive about how you require a response or get their attention.
    • Turning their body toward you works well.
    • Turning their head can be too intrusive.
    • Saying “look at…” can be an issue because they may not be able to control where their eyes go, or process visual and auditory at the same time (make eye contact and listen)

Break down steps into smaller tasks

Don’t talk to them like babies or assume incompetence

Example Video

To end, here is a good video that shows two adults with autism and how professionals and their families interact with them. It is called “Working with people with autism: the professionals” by the Social Care Institute for Excellence.


To End

That’s the end of the series on Autism! I hope you found it helpful!

I would love to hear your ideas for teens, adults, and nonverbal adults with autism. What teaching tips and riding activities have worked for you?


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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