Of Horses and Autism

What do you get when you mix a new book, Autism Awareness Month and a connection to last week's post on pet therapy?


I was first alerted to the publication of "The Horse Boy," the story of a family that takes their autistic son to Mongolia to ride horses and visit with a Shaman, by Motoko Rich of the New York Times. She was profiling the book from an industry perspective but was collecting POV's about the autism/alternative therapy angle. Along with many others, I weighed in:

"It always puzzles me why we don’t look more at these “n of one” research studies. There’s a whole research literature developing around this concept looking at best case scenarios. Look at the person who had the quote-in-quote “miracle” cure, whether it’s H.I.V., cancer or autism. What is generalizable?

Working with animals is certainly something that children respond to. There is research being done in this area. We have many kids who’ve gone to farms in this area and seen similar responses in improved behavior, improvements in toileting and communication. Getting out in nature, using any opportunity to expose children to different social and emotional environments — those are all good lessons. You have to be careful — you don’t want to say that all children can be cured by riding horses, but there are some interesting lessons in this."

I was responding to concerns about the generalizability of this experience for families with autistic children. Was it irresponsible to suggest a child (one child) could be healed by an encounter as unusual as this? My point, in direct contrast to Dr. Paul Offit's predictably gloomy "I think false hope is always bad" commentary, was that hope is a crucial element in healing and we should encourage it when ethically appropriate. No one was saying all autistic children should ride horses and go to Mongolia and thus be healed (whatever that means to each individual and his family) – but shouldn't we be looking at success/recovery stories carefully to see what things might help others? Wouldn't that be the scientific (and common sense) approach? This is an approach that others are taking in the world of integrative oncology, for example – looking at "best case" stories. In fact, our very own NIH is sponsoring the research. The Autism Research Institute (which coordinates the DAN! biomedical conferences) has for some time profiled autism "best-case" recovery scenarios. Shouldn't we be taking a closer look at these children? Does someone have a better idea? Because, from where I stand, a primary care pediatrician caring for hundreds of families with autistic children, I am seeing a whole lot of frustration with the pace of therapeutic research.

P.S. for those health care practitioners in need of some hippotherapy, check out Dr. Beverly Kane's amazing site, Horsensei, featuring "Medicine and Horsemanship," among other offerings.

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