Sorry it’s been more than a week chaps - we were in Yellowstone tracking wolves with Scub, pix to come soon. So as many of you know we had a resident neuro-scientist with us here at new trails during the past two years, and she, plus several other brain specialists and educational psychologists have outlined for us what seems to be going on with horse boy approaches
and why the results of reasoning and emotional regulation, as well as lessened anxiety appear so consistent.
It seems that what is going on is as follows:
The problem; many people with autism and other neuro-sensory conditions have over-active amygdalas (the part of the brain that governs fight/flight/freeze) and nervous systems that sometimes misfire and give wrong information to the brain, which further triggers the amygdala. When this part of the brain is triggered it produced cortisol, the stress hormone. This is natural - but we are only supposed to produce cortisol in short bursts (i.e. running away from a charging elephant) before returning to our normal behavior. the problem is that if our amygdala is over developed we end up producing cortisol all the time, and if our sensory system malfunctions then we add to this constant slow drip of stress, massive and regular bursts of 'charging elephant' type meltdowns. Cortisol is toxic to the human body in large quantities. It prevents the brain from learning and actually, over time, erodes the brain. Any autism parent knows what this negative cycle looks like.
The solution: luckily there is a natural antidote to cortisol - oxytocin. Oxytocin has many functions - it’s the bliss/communication/trust hormone. It brings down breast milk in mothers. It’s part of the comfort/care, co-operation system in mammals which is our principle survival mechanism. And it promotes learning and is actually healthy for the body in large quantities - unlike cortisol.
When you rock your hips in rhythm, your body produces large quantities of oxytocin. So riding a horse in collection gives you that (riding an uncollected horse has the opposite effect sadly, which is why in horse boy we need people to learn some dressage to make their horses able to give this oxytocin effect). But you don’t necessarily need a horse - you can get the same effect with a child on your shoulders if you move in rhythm, or on a swing, or on your lap in a car/train/sofa...
But there's more. This rhythmic style of movement has four more effects which act directly and positively on the brain.
First they activate the cerebellum, which is connected to the rest of the brain through some wonderful things called the Purkinje cells. Weird name, I know. Autistic people often have a deficit in these Purkinje cells which facilitate communication between the different areas of the brain (hence the uneven brain development of spectrum kids). But this type of rhythmic rocking motion actually causes the cerebellum to produce Purkinje cells and therefore gets the brain communicating more evenly. The cerebellum also helps with precision and attention.
Then there's the second wonderful thing - the vestibular system. It’s in the inner ear and governs attention, as well as balance, is also activated by these rhythmic, rocking; find your balance from moment to moment movements.
Then the third thing - those yummy Purkinje cells also act on the CEO of the brain, the pre frontal cortex, which governs, among other things, reasoning and emotional regulation.
then the fourth and last thing - the pre frontal cortex also tells the amygdala to shut the f%$^: up already and stop behaving as if there was a charging elephant when there isn’t one, and to quit producing all that damned, eroding cortisol, when there isn’t any need for i.
So these rhythmic, rocking movements, done over long stretches of time, replace a very negative cycle with a very positive on.
No need for drugs, no need even for a horse (though you get the max effect with a horse because of its sheer power). Any playground or even your living room sofa or backyard swing can do it.
But you have to do it a lot. Like a LOT. Like all the time for a few years. And you have to do it in an intrinsically joyful (i.e. natural or at least bad sensory trigger free) environment and without yelling at/otherwise stressing the kid (think rigid ABA practitioners/stern teachers making kids cry - no bueno) because as soon as those things creep in that pesky overactive amygdala gets fired up again, the cortisol starts pumping, and we're back in that negative cycle once more, all our good work undone.
But moving in rhythm and having fun a lot, like all the time, ultimately gets those yummy Purkinje cells, cerebellum, vestibular system and pre frontal cortex - our holy grail - going and over time this combo re-trains the brain into the positive learning cycle.
That’s it, that’s why horse boy works.
To read the science behind all this click on the 'research' button above and you'll find all the research papers in easy to follow groupings.