Horse therapy for Hedland children living with autism

As a mother of six, with three of her children having special needs and two of them being autistic boys, Cristelle Capitani has witnessed first-hand the powerful impact horses can make on the lives of the neurologically diverse.  

In 2019, Cristelle noticed a special bond between one of her sons and a pet horse. Her son barely spoke, but yet, when around horses she said it was like they were bringing him out into the world. 

As a counsellor, Cristelle decided to go back to university to specialise in autism learning and therapy and from there, Autism Horses Australia was born. 

This year, she decided to move the program up to Port Hedland, to be with her partner.  

“When I initially investigated services available in the region, I realised that there was an enormous need in the community for my specific therapy,” she said.  

Currently, there are no other services offering this type of therapy in Hedland and Cristelle said her goal is to create a space where children with autism can access an individualised service, while also building a community for people with autism and their caregivers.  

The organisation allows people to explore their own relationships to horses, whether that is riding them, feeding them, washing or brushing them, it’s about giving that person autonomy and choice in their therapy.  

By doing so, children with autism can work on their own individual challenges and goals, such as fine and gross motor skills, social and emotional regulation, executive functioning, core strength, communication, self-care and social interaction.  

“The impact that horses have on autistic people and in fact all people, is that they positively affect your autonomic nervous system – which is that fight or flight reflex,” Cristelle said.  

“They slow your heart rate by about 12 beats per minute, which puts you in a “rest and digest” state, meaning you can absorb new information more effectively.  

“Because neurodiverse people have a largely hyporeactive ANS response to their environment, they can only learn when they are in a relaxed state… this is why our program is so effective.  

“The horse is a co-facilitator of therapy provision.” 

Participants can choose whether they want to ride, wash or simply just be around horses in the program. Supplied: Cristelle Capitani

Not only does the program provide benefits to individuals, it creates a sense of community for them and their care givers.  

“Their experience of our community, life and the environment is atypical,” Cristelle said.  

“It is important to build a community for them and their carers, their experience of life is completely different to a neurotypical persons.  

“At Autism Horses Australia we do not view neurodiverse persons as disabled, we view them as neurologically different and where given the right support, they can have the same opportunities as Neurotypical people to thrive in their environment.” 

The organisation employs experts in horsemanship and therapy, which combined with Cristelle’s own experiences as a counsellor and more importantly mother of children on the spectrum she developed two unique programs.  

The programs can be accessed using NDIS funding and programs are tailored to the individual through the key therapy team, including Cristelle as a counsellor, a psychologist and an occupational therapist.  

The programs include Capacity Building Therapy and the PEERS Social Skill Program and are available to anyone over the age of two.  

Cristelle said the Capacity Building Program teaches the neurodiverse community independent functioning skills to thrive in everyday life, using a somatic counselling approach to learning.  

Whereas the PEERS Social Skills Program is delivered in 33 countries across the world, designed by Dr Elizabeth Laugeson of UCLA USA. Autism Horses Australia is a registered provider of this program and is looking to collaborate with local government to expand the offering of horse-based programs to the wider region.  

If you’re interested in getting involved, you can simply text ‘info’ to 0422 518 955.  

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