Autistic children develop verbal skills

Diagnosed with autism, he was thought to be nonverbal.

That was until he began riding a horse.

Now 5, Romeo, of Apalachin, participates in the Southern Tier Alternative Therapies’ program called Strides, which combines equine therapy and iPads with speech-generating software to help low and nonverbal children develop communication skills.

“He’s starting to use sentences and ask questions,” said Romeo’s grandmother, Rose McCabe of Apalachin, who brings him to Fargnoli Farms in Apalachin where the 8-week spring program takes place.

“Being able to communicate his needs has really helped with his behavior,” she said. “He rarely has meltdowns anymore.”

Romeo is one of eight children participating in the program, now in its second year.

Strides is one of three equine-assisted therapy programs offered by STAT, which is volunteer-run and serves more than 200 families a year across the Southern Tier. STAT has provided $250,000 in scholarships since it was founded in 2007 for children to attend the programs. It serves youngsters and their families in a 12-county area including Broome, Tioga, Tompkins, Chemung, Cortland, Chenango, Delaware and Otsego counties in New York and Susquehanna County in Pennsylvania.

Like all the programs, Strides is offered free of charge to families — iPad included — thanks to the United Way of Broome and Tioga counties, grants and community support.

The annual Expressions of Hope charity golf tournament, held this year on Sept. 13 at Chenango Valley State Park, also raises funds for scholarships for the programs.

Help from Ithaca College

Tina Caswell, a clinical assistant professor of speech-language pathology and audiology at Ithaca College, facilitates Strides along with her graduate students, and uses the iPads to help children practice communication skills. Children can easily tap on the touch screen and on an image denoting what they want to do or where they want to go for the ride. The software speaks the sentence or word back to the child, who repeats it. ….

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