Autism animal therapy.
This is a post about Grace, an 11 year old girl. As you can tell, this isn’t a photo of Grace, but that doesn’t matter. You see, this post could be about anybody.
A few weeks ago we had a couple of families come for a Farm Experience here at Barcoos Farmstays Bathurst. Several excited kids leaped out the car, but one girl didn’t leap out with the same enthusiasm. She stood hidden behind her mother as the dogs came up to investigate. We ventured off to feed our first lot of animals, some hyperactive Lambs and Grace stood hidden behind her mum. This reminded me of Jaiden, a child who was once incredibly fearful of all animals, but through on-going desensitisation he’d conquered those fears. I approached Grace and offered her some reassurance, and not long after, she went on to overcome her fear and hand feed the Lambs.
We ventured through the gates into the large open paddock where we were greeted by the resident Alpaca. Whilst they stand over 6ft tall, these particular Alpaca are shy and gentle animals. Given the overwhelming nature of such large animals Grace instantly announced “Nope, nope, nope”. I mentioned to her mother about Jaiden being on the spectrum and overcoming his fear of animals, she nodded at me and quietly signalled that Grace was also on the Autism Spectrum. I spent some time reassuring her that they would not hurt her, and a few minutes later, Grace was hand feeding Eric the Alpaca whilst both shaking in fear, and smiling from ear to ear. This trend continued throughout the entire “Farm Experience”, from the Donkey, to the Cows, to Georgie the pig. Each and every animal required her to face her fears and she did just that, albeit with some assistance from myself and encouragement from the rest of the group.
When faced by 30+ hungry chickens she refused to enter the pen. I took a chicken outside of the pen for her to look at and pat whilst I explained that they were not going to hurt her as we watched the other kids feed them. She sheepishly entered the pen and I helped her get a scoop of chicken food, a few seconds later she was hand feeding the chickens and ducks, once again smiling from ear to ear despite being overwhelmed. In an hour she’d progressed from not wanting to engage with any animal, to hand feeding them, and actually enjoying it!
The final part of the “Farm Experience” is a led Pony or Horse ride. A fearful and tense Grace climbed onto the horse and we set off on a lap around the house yard. As we walked along I asked her “So, how was that? How do you feel? ” and with her eyes full of joy and a smile from ear to ear, she replied “So happy, I can’t believe I did that, I was so scared”. I took some time to reiterate that she was capable of doing anything, and that the joy that comes after overcoming a fear is one of the best feelings, ever.
I have no idea what (if any) long term consequence that 1 hour experience will have on Grace, perhaps she’ll remember the experience and talk about it for years to come, or maybe she’ll fall in love with horses, or become a vet, I don’t really know. But what I do know, is that her world has potentially been opened up in ways that would never have been possible had she not gone outside of her comfort zone.
It has taken me many years to learn the delicate process of encouraging Jaiden to venture outside of his comfort zone, but it’s become something I am passionate about. Jaiden has gone from being fearful of all animals, to interacting with them on a daily basis whilst sharing his knowledge with others. He’s progressed from not wanting to go near a horse, to learning to ride one thanks to some lessons from Elaine. The point is, each and every one of us is capable of SO much more than we think. Too often we have limiting beliefs, or negative self-talk that serve as a self-fulfilling prophecy. We let our fears control us and refuse to leave our comfort zone which leaves so many experiences and untapped potential on the table, sitting there, waiting to be explored. The more time we spend in our comfort zone, the harder it becomes to venture outside it.
Being back at Barcoos and spending time with kids and animals, has once again reaffirmed my dreams of one day opening my own campground. Somewhere I can continue to help kids discover their untapped potential, to overcome their fears, and open up a world that they didn’t know existed. I dream of creating a space capable of changing lives. I have many things to overcome to achieve this, both financial and logistical. But I know if I continue to push myself and leave my own comfort zone, I’ll make it happen.
Your comfort zone is a beautiful place, but nothing ever grows there.