I see Iris and the children at the club being able to naturally self-regulate, understand emotions and follow instructions while they interact with the different animals here at The Little Explorers Activity Club. For children on the autistic spectrum whose minds can be overcrowded with stimuli, the confusion seems to fade when they hold Luna the rabbit on their lap. Fingers seeping into her soft white fur, they can open up about what they are struggling with or what their passions are. You can see them pausing, noting details like her funny little nose or long white whiskers.
It seems their sensory systems are calmed by these interactions. Lying on Blue’s back feeling his warmth and deep breaths they can truly relax. Others are calmed by his rhythmic walk and trot. Watching the enjoyment and satisfaction some take in grooming his coat is intriguing. They seem to know instinctively that he will enjoy what many of their own bodies need – repetitive strokes of a heavy brush down his shoulder can help them regulate themselves into a state where anxiety levels drop and communication is possible.
The ease in which conversations can flow is constantly surprising, especially when the notes I have read in advance about a particular child’s challenges can seem so overwhelming. We have created a comfortable sitting room area right inside the barn with an armchair and rug from our South American travels. There are toys and books to dip into and provide more moments of amusement.
Murph the goat, who is the youngest of all our animals, fits into the baby role. With him in your arms your heart melts. He has eyes like a baby deer and faun-like colouring, and never fails to bring out the soft maternal side in everyone. I love how the animals come in contrasting pairs, each providing something different.
Smurf is the wild card, confident and strong. He leads the way but only seems to bond with certain characters. Once you are his friend he is incredibly loyal but he can take some time to form those relationships. This characteristic is incredibly useful in the sessions as the children need to consider their behaviour towards him and he therefore teaches them without them even being aware of it. It is a similar dynamic with Luna and Shadow, Luna is the relaxed cuddle bunny and Shadow is an excitable bouncy presence.
People giggled when I announced that Goat Agility was on my mind. I had found a wooden dog agility course that we could adapt for the goats. It turned out Smurf, our black and white goat was an expert and loved showing off his skills. The children learned how to lead them: the best position to lead your goat across the ramp is to have a short lead. You have to make sure you go no further ahead of the goat than its shoulder. You need encouraging words and guidance to your goat as he moves forward. It turns out there’s a lot involved.
It is important to me that our private sessions for families follow what the greatest needs of each family are, and this sometimes means tailoring the sessions to the siblings. Being a brother or a sister in a special needs family is a remarkable feeling and heartbreaking at the same time. Very often you can see that they put their own needs behind those of their brother or sister. They love their special sibling and become their best advocates, they know them probably better than anyone. They become used to seeing the unnoticed or the misunderstood. They are the quiet wingmen to all families affected by autism. The aim is to give them some time doing an activity that they might not have access to in a world of expensive therapies and needs.
Respite is also important so sometimes that might mean letting the children play on the apple tree platforms while making the mother some tea. I know how valuable it can be to talk openly with another mother who has been through similar experiences.
The animals are a source of fun, comfort, a diversion and a haven. They relax us and calm our racing thoughts, giving us time to breathe. As I watch them playing with the children, sitting on a lap, teaching without knowing it, drawing out the best in these young inspirational minds and ourselves.
I sometimes think back to the blue butterfly I saw in the jungle – how the wish I made then has been made true tenfold. Small hands reach out to Blue’s head: he bows his face down to them and their fingers run down his forehead to his soft grey muzzle, whiskers and pony moustache. Feeling his warm breath against the back of their hands they join him with deep inhalations and shut their eyes. These animals are a special gift to us all. As the next months unfold I wish for more adventures for Iris: adventures that will teach her, will excite her, and will help her find her place in the world.
We are very grateful for any donations as it helps pay for more animal feed, materials and the special activities like the archery, cooking, arts and crafts & music workshops for the families.
If you would like to donate please email us at firstname.lastname@example.org and we can send you the details of how to do so. Or if you have Paypal you can use this link.
To give you an idea of costs and why we need to constantly fundraise for the 3 ponies, 2 goats, 2 rabbits and a cat here are some basics:
A bale of hay costs £7.00 (lasts about a day in the winter)
1 Bedding bale of wood shavings £8.00
Goat Mix £11.00
Farrier £75.00 for a trim and 4 shoes, £25.00 for barefoot trim
We deeply appreciate any help you can give x