Babies and young children are typically impulsive, present oriented and have not yet developed organized play. However, as they develop they are increasingly able to engage in organized, planned and goal-directed actions. This ability is known as executive function, a set of mental processes that helps connect past experience with present action. The development of executive function is essential in allowing children to flexibly switch between different activities rather than getting stuck on one thing, stop themselves from yelling when they are angry or learn how to cope with delayed gratification, all of which are often difficult for children on the autism spectrum.
Although it is not considered to be a universal feature of autism, there is a consensus within the literature that executive functioning is one of the key areas in which many children with autism exhibit delays (Hill, 2004). This delay can lead to a tendency for children with normal to high IQ’s to test poorly and can have a huge effect on the child’s ability to learn in a traditional, classroom based environment. Poor executive functioning may also be the reason why children with autism struggle to transition (or shift) from one activity, situation or task to another.
Whilst executive function is governed by the pre-frontal cortex studies show that the cerebellum, and in particular the purkinje cells which are located within the cerebellum, also play an important role in executive function (Bellebaum et al, 2007, Karatekin et al, 2000). Purkinje cells are one of the largest neurons in the brain and are responsible for connecting information from the cerebellum to the cerebral cortex. Interestingly studies have found that children with autism consistently show defects in their purkinje cells which results in under-connectivity between the cerebellum and the rest of the brain (Heck & Howell, 2013) and is posited to be one of the reasons that children with autism often struggle with higher level cognitive tasks such as those governed by executive function.
And this is where Horse Boy comes in. It has been well established within the literature that movement, and in particular rhythmic movements such as riding a horse, swinging or bouncing on a trampoline, leads to an increased number of purkinje cells within the brain (Seo et al, 2010). Furthermore regular exercise has also been found to lead to improved executive functioning (Guiney & Machado,2013) a fact that is especially true in children who have been allowed to spend less time partaking in structured activities and more time exploring and playing (Barker et al, 2014).
In conclusion it seems possible that the focus within Horse Boy on movement, exploration and play leads to the production of purkinje cells within the cerebellum which in turn activate the pre-frontal cortex and over time lead to an increase in executive function which in turn leads to increased flexibility and emotional control.
Barker, J. E., Semenov, A. D., Michaelson, L., Provan, L. S., Snyder, H. R., & Munakata, Y. (2014). Less-structured time in children’s daily lives predicts self-directed executive functioning. Name: Frontiers in Psychology, 5, 593.
Bellebaum, C., & Daum, I. (2007). Cerebellar involvement in executive control. The Cerebellum, 6(3), 184-192.
Guiney, H., & Machado, L. (2013). Benefits of regular aerobic exercise for executive functioning in healthy populations. Psychonomic bulletin & review, 20(1), 73-86.
Heck, D. H., & Howell, J. W. (2013). Prefrontal cortical-cerebellar interaction deficits in autism spectrum disorders. Autism S4, 1, 2 -http://omicsgroup.org/journals/2165-7890/2165-7890-S4-001.pdf
Hill, E. L. (2004). Executive dysfunction in autism. Trends in cognitive sciences, 8(1), 26-32.
Karatekin, C., Lazareff, J. A., & Asarnow, R. F. (2000). Relevance of the cerebellar hemispheres for executive functions. Pediatric neurology, 22(2), 106-112.
Seo, T. B., Kim, B. K., Ko, I. G., Kim, D. H., Shin, M. S., Kim, C. J., ... & Kim, H. (2010). Effect of treadmill exercise on Purkinje cell loss and astrocytic reaction in the cerebellum after traumatic brain injury. Neuroscience letters, 481(3), 178-182.
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