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One mum's quest to help children with autism using horses

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The first time Cristelle Capitani introduced her son to her horse, she says her normally disengaged boy came to life.

The smiles and interaction she had yearned to see for so long lit up his face.

As a mum to two boys with autism, it was an experience she had never dreamed possible for her children.

Shocked at how the horse elicited such a response, Ms Capitani looked into equine programs for children with autism.

And when she couldn't find such therapy near her home in Gingin, just outside Perth in Western Australia, she decided to launch one herself.

"There are some fabulous riding programs out there, but I wanted to see more [emphasis on relationship building] and after a small amount of time I decided, well, I'm a counsellor, I have horses, I can fill a niche in the market," she said.

Ms Capitani headed back to university to study a Graduate Certificate in Education (Autism), pulled together a team of professional horse handlers and volunteers, experimented on the education and counselling with her own children, and launched Autism Horses Australia.

Equine-assisted counselling

Ms Capitani's program is one of a growing number using horses to help children with autism across the globe.

However, Autism Awareness Australia chief executive Nicole Rogerson worries such programs make big claims with no scientific evidence to back them.

"As much as these programs are lovely and it's excellent that children with autism have access to these types of programs, it's important to understand this is not a therapy — it is not an evidence-based treatment or support for children with autism," she said.

"The research isn't there to support that it's going to make a big difference."

Horses standing in the shallow waters of a river, with people holding them.
Ms Capitani says horses help people relax, making the animals a successful therapy tool.(ABC Midwest and Wheatbelt: Samille Mitchell)

In Gingin, Ms Capitani maintains horses are a useful therapy tool.

She says she is not an equine therapist but a specialist educator and counsellor who uses horses to help regulate children's nervous systems — a process she calls "somatic experiencing therapy via equine-assisted interception". 

She is fighting for such education to be taken more seriously.

"It's not just horses are beautiful, horses are pretty. We feel relaxed," she said.

"It's a step-by-step, repeatable, observable skill-building program.

"We provide baselines, assessments, we continue to monitor and track, and we provide a full report for NDIS [National Disability Insurance Scheme] purposes."

She says the proof is in her own son.

"Recently, I took Jamie to have extra assessments, and the assessment team told me that he no longer fulfils the criteria for autism spectrum disorder because he can give appropriate eye contact," she said.

While Ms Capitani does not claim such results for everyone, she says most people reported improvements in their child's ability to make friends, avoid meltdowns, and interact better with other children. 

"Things that seem like nothing to a neurotypical family — but for neurodiverse families, those small things are the building blocks and [cause for] celebration," she said.

A little girl with a pink hat, with a big grin, sitting on a horse in front of a female adult rider who is laughing.
Ms Capitani says parents credit her program with improving the social skills and interactions for their children with autism.(ABC Midwest and Wheatbelt: Samille Mitchell)
Source: ABC

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