By Joell Dunlap. Joell is the founder and Executive Director of Square Peg Ranch in Half Moon Bay, CA. Since 2004, Square Peg has been pairing autism families with horses and other animals who needed a second chance. Their mission is simply to turn “I wish” into “I can.”
“Does it work?" I run a program that connects people with autism and other disabilities to the magic of horses and ranch animals, and I get this question all the time. It's a reasonable question, but I must admit to being irked.
Does anyone ask the baseball coach for the local all-stars “does baseball work?” Does anyone ask the Boy Scout leader “does it work?” Does recreation work? Does play work? Work. Work. Work.
What do we mean by "work"?
A good portion of our lives is spent working – doing – earning for our families and for our advancement. If we are lucky we will take joy in our work. But recreation does work – by making our lives enjoyable – by letting us take pleasure in the movement of our physical bodies – by connecting us with others with similar interests – making friends, trying out new skills – of course it works!
I think what angers me is this notion that what we are trying to accomplish is to make someone “less autistic.”
Yes, we want to create skills to help an autistic person navigate a neuro-typical world and alleviate the more stressful factors of having a heightened anxiety response. Of course we read eagerly about families that achieve breakthroughs in communication and behaviors through connecting in common interest.
But focusing on an outcome for something designed to bring joy to someone denigrates our intention. The focus morphs to an intention to change someone – someone who might be perfect already.
Attaching an agenda to recreation because of a disability denigrates the freedom and the joy we all deserve as fellow humans. So I pose the question – why is it perfectly acceptable to recognize the value of recreation for non disabled people but for a disabled person, we want first to know if it “works?” I asked an autistic friend her opinion on recreation and what she told me made a lot of sense. She said that it’s only recreation if you feel safe doing it. It’s valuable if you choose the level of risk – not others. Otherwise, it’s either terrifying or belittling.
This then makes the critical case for supported recreation for vulnerable populations. It’s Square Peg’s job to provide the supports so that each person feels safe enough to recreate.
And that, my friend, works.
This piece was adapted from the original at Square Peg's website, squarepegfoundation.org. Square Peg is the west coast flagship center for HorseBoy™ Method. www.horseboyworld.com.