Ausnew Home Care | Parents turn to equine therapy for children with autism, ADHD as disability services wait times blow out

Parents turn to equine therapy for children with autism, ADHD as disability services wait times blow out

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Archie Murdoch reaches into a canvas bag, pulls out a stiff-bristled brush, and starts working it down the mane of a pony.

As he does, he chats freely about school, his friends and the "best way" to brush a horse.

The conversation is confident and free-flowing, but talking to others isn't something that has always comes easily for the eight-year-old, who is diagnosed with autism and ADHD.

This interaction is part of a treatment known as equine therapy.

Covered under the National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS), the therapy is increasingly being used by parents in the Goldfields to treat a range of mental health and behavioural conditions. 

A boy with a horse.
Archie Murdoch uses equine therapy to manage his autism and ADHD. ()

Nicola Murdoch said while the horse-based-therapy was different from other traditional NDIS services she had used in the past, the results had, so far, been positive.

"I've seen days with my son where he's been very full of energy, so full that it's going to explode out of him," she said.

"He's come down and not even ridden a horse, just being with a horse, maybe [to] cuddle it or brush it, those sorts of things really help process the energy and emotions.

"He struggles with his social connections, that's another thing it gives him, to be able to talk to people and have something in common."

A woman patting a horse
Janelle Kelly says she has struggled to find staff. ()

Services 'hard to come by' 

The shortage in the Goldfields has driven more people to equine therapy and its owner Janelle Kelly said her business had struggled to keep up with demand.

"Our biggest challenge is finding people with qualifications to bring them on board because we need staff, probably the same as everywhere else," she said.

"This wasn't the plan when I started this business, Horse Hub, but there has been such a call for it and a demand, that's the way it's gone."

a woman in a white shirt sitting in front of a fence
Nicola Murdoch says access to NDIS services in the Goldfields can take months.()

Ms Murdoch, a disability support worker in Kalgoorlie, discovered the service after struggling to access other services for her son.

"We had a lot of trouble getting other therapy, speech therapy and occupational therapy, all those things are very hard to come by here," she said.

"Especially things to do with emotion regulation, because the waiting list for psychologists and counsellors for children is 18 months to two years."

A women wit black hair in a black top standing on red dirt
Renee Cortesi says a transient workforce makes it hard to find ongoing support.()

Renee Cortesi also turned to equine therapy to help her teenage son Gabriel Taverio manage his autism.

She said finding ongoing support in Kalgoorlie was a challenge, with NDIS providers regularly coming and going.

"It's a high turnover of people in a mining town, so you might get some really good staff and then they take opportunities elsewhere," she said.

"The ability for a child like ours to have a long-term relationship with a therapeutic service is really key, and something that's really hard to get."

NDIS review underway

People With Disabilities WA chief executive Brendan Cullinan said the shortage of NDIS providers was nationwide, but remote and rural communities often felt the effects more acutely.

"There's a range of issues from the current economic situation on workforce availability and the general cost of living in some regional areas, to attract and retain people living and working those areas," he said.

A head and shoulder shot of Brendan Cullinan standing in front of several large trees.
Brendan Cullinan says the cost of living and labour shortage are both factors.()

Mr Cullinan said increasing disability services in the regions was an issue that needed to be addressed by all levels of government.

Last year, NDIS Minister Bill Shorten announced an Australia-wide review of the NDIS, with findings and recommendations to be released in October 2023.

A spokesperson for the NDIS said the review would include an assessment of service delivery in remote and very remote areas.

But with the last rural and remote strategy published between 2016 and 2019, parents and providers say solutions are needed now.

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