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Last week, a friend & coworker pulled me into the hallway at school. She told me about her neighbor who has a foundation that works with autistic children and horses. It’s called the Horse Boy Foundation. She asked if I would be interested in taking Phoenix out to meet these guys and their horses.

I had heard her talk about them in the past, but didn’t make the connection in the weeks that I’d been learning about Phoenix’s diagnosis. We set up a time to go out with her on October 14th at 4:30pm.

(by Ashleigh Fuller)

Kim recommended that Matt and I watch a movie called Horse Boy, which was a documentary about the family whose ranch we were to visit. They have an autistic son named Rowan, who bonded with a horse at a young age and has made leaps and bounds in development while riding a horse. The movie documents their family’s travels through Mongolia on horseback. It was such a raw, honest movie that I found it impossible not to connect with the family on a personal level. They expressed the frustration, sadness, hope and encouragement of having an autistic son. It was as though they were talking for me. Expressing everything I’ve been going through emotionally for the last month with Phoenix. The movie and their story was inspiring and touching and made me even more excited to get Phoenix involved.

We took Phoenix to meet the horses this afternoon. I wasn’t really sure what to expect or how it would turn out. I was excited and hoping for the best, but still a little cautious about having high expectations. A dog is the biggest animal Phoenix has ever been around, so I didn’t have any idea how he would react to a horse. They’re such massive creatures when you’re an adult- imagine being 3 feet tall!

When we first got there, he clung to me as we walked around and met everyone. We went inside the house and he let Matt take him while I filled out some paperwork. They have a lot of toys and activities for the children, which was nice. You could tell right away that this was definitely a very kid-friendly environment.

                  

Maya went straight to the horses and in typical fashion; she was best friends with several of the older girls within no time at all. She didn’t hesitate to get right on a horse and start riding. I love how adventurous and fearless she is. I was scared that she would feel left out with all of the attention being on Phoenix, but that wasn’t the case at all. She got just as much attention as he did and had the time of her life the whole time we were out there. When she finished riding the horse, she was off to jump on the trampoline & help with grooming the horses. She had such a great experience!

We were taking our time, letting Phoenix take it all in. I didn’t want to overwhelm him and have his first impression be a negative one. Rupert (the man who made the documentary about his son and whose ranch we were at) came over to greet us. He was enthusiastic and interested in Phoenix. He had such a positive energy and was encouraging as he talked to us. He asked us questions and listened to what we had to say. He pointed out each time Phoenix gestured to let us know he wanted something- reminding us that he has great expressive communication. I get so stuck on his not having “words” that I don’t give him credit for the communication he does express. He may not be verbal, but he has opinions and tries to share them with us.

One thing I’ve come to appreciate is that there’s something special about talking to parents of autistic children. They know exactly where we are right now and they have an idea of the journey that’s ahead for us. Most importantly, they are completely positive about their children and they embrace autism as a gift instead of a disability. I’ve yet to meet a parent of an autistic child who doesn’t rave about their child’s intelligence and unique perspective on this world. At 19 months old, it’s hard to know how severe Phoenix is, or how much worse it may get before it gets better. I can’t get enough of personal antidotes and encouragement from people who have lived with and loved children like him. Rupert checked in with Phoenix throughout our visit and interacted with him and us directly.

 

After a while, I took Phoenix over to the horse. He didn’t know what to think at first and drew in close to me, turning his head away. Several of us were gathered around, petting the horse and eventually, Phoenix started getting curious.

The first thing he did was reach out and rub the horse with the back of his hand super-duper quick. So quick that I don’t know how many other people saw it. A minute or so later, he did it again, but slower this time. Eventually, with our encouragement and smiles, Phoenix reached out and started touching the silky soft hair on the horse. It was awesome seeing him enjoy the simple sensation of touching the horse. A minute or two later, he was reaching out with both hands to stroke the horse’s back. Matt was standing on the other side of the horse and Phoenix tried to pull himself up on top of the horse’s back. Rupert stepped in and helped get him up on the horse. I had no idea how to set him up there safely, nor did I have the strength since Phoenix is such a big fella, so I was glad to have help. We ended up just passing Phoenix back and forth between Matt and me, dragging his body over the top of the horse each time. He really seemed to be enjoying it.

A little later, he noticed a playscape and wanted to head over to that. There were several dogs around and Phoenix was enamored with them. Kim, Matt and I walked Phoenix over to see some goats and chickens. He was totally enamored with the chickens and had a great time just watching them walk around in their coop. We made our way back to the playscape and let Phoenix slide for a while.While everyone we met was super nice, there were two people who stood out in our experience. A woman named Emily was right there next to Phoenix every step of the way. What I loved about her (and everyone, really) was that she had absolutely no apparent agenda. She just stayed close to Phoenix and allowed him to go wherever his interests took him. If he wanted to slide, she was sliding right there with him. If he wanted to play in the dirt, she sat right down and played in the dirt with him. If he wanted to get on the horse, she was right with him doing that too. When I thought about what it would be like, I never pictured our experience being quite like that. It was amazing. 

The other person Phoenix bonded with was a man named Craig. We had barely been there for 30 minutes when Phoenix wiggled into Craig’s arms, laid his head on Craig’s shoulder and just hugged him. Not just a little hug, a big one that lasted for several minutes. Phoenix is a very affectionate boy with me; but a problem we’ve always had is that if I’m around, he absolutely won’t go to anyone else. He freaks out if someone else tries to hold him and then he clings to me even more. I hate to even use the word “problem” because there’s no point in my day when I don’t love his affection. It’s just difficult to be the center of his attention non-stop. I have a hard time getting much done with a 30 pound baby in one arm all day long. That’s why it was so crazy to see Phoenix attach himself to Craig like that-especially with me right there. I loved it. It reassured me that we were in the right place doing what we were supposed to be doing at that moment in time.

They eventually brought the horse over to the playscape area and Phoenix turned his attention to it again. Matt and I passed Phoenix back and forth for a while. Craig climbed up on top of the horse and Phoenix went right to him. Phoenix was facing him at first, just holding on tight and biting his fingers. I’m sure it was a little scary for him to be up so high, so I imagine the biting was his way to calm his nerves until he got used to being up there. I felt bad when I saw that because I had intended to bring one of his biting toys, but completely forgot about it as we were leaving the house. After a couple of minutes, Craig turned him around and Phoenix relaxed on top of the horse. He had a huge grin on his face and was reaching out to stroke the horse’s neck & mane. He looked so comfortable and happy up there.

He eventually came down, but ended up going back up on the horse to sit all by himself shortly after that. I was shocked at the progress he had made in one day. I never expected that he would be sitting happily atop a horse the first time he ever went out there. I thought for sure that he would have to work his way up to that comfort level with the horses.

Once Phoenix got down, he moved on to the dirt. He had such a great time playing with Emily, Craig and Luna (the dog). They were all right there at his level scooping up dirt & rocks with him. He moved from the dirt to a truck and had a great time climbing over Emily as he played in the cab of the truck with her. I couldn’t wipe the grin off my face as I watched him interact with other people & the horse so beautifully. When Emily was sliding with him, he actually climbed the ladder, which was probably 5’ tall, all by himself. When we got home, he was climbing up the couch and sliding off the arm, then climbing onto his high chair and getting down all by himself. I don’t know if it’s from his day on top of a tall horse, or if it’s from learning to climb a ladder. I just know that he’s never done that before this afternoon & he was having a blast doing it over and over again.

I am so thankful that Kim reached out to us like that. This was such a great experience and I’m really looking forward to going back out with Phoenix and Maya. Everyone out there gave us such personal attention and they were all so great with Phoenix and his needs. No one pushed him to do anything he didn’t want to do. Everything happened on his own timeline, at his own pace and in his own comfort level. They were not only attentive to Phoenix, but to Maya as well. She needs to know that she’s not neglected or pushed aside for his needs. Her experience was just as exciting and important as his. I’m still beaming about our trip out there & would certainly recommend it to anyone who might be interested. I look forward to seeing how Phoenix progresses as we get to visit more.