‘If the plan doesn’t work change the plan but never the goal.’
A storm raged outside and in my head, planning adventures had always had their challenges & frustrations but my great plan for Iris to ride the Pennine Bridleway was going in completely the wrong direction. Block after block, I felt like we were going no where on this one. The distances between the night stays were too big and the National Park accommodation was expensive. On top of
To spend quality time with Iris where she could thrive and expand on skills, building confidence and a sense of achievement.
To raise funds for our Project
To raise positive awareness of autism and inspire others to look beyond their child’s diagnosis, to see a bright future with endless possibilities.
I realised that I didn’t need to go up to The Pennine Way, I had my very own Midshires Way right on our doorstep. I would learn how to travel with Iris on a budget and see the positives in what I had overlooked. Travelling from home means that we will make connections locally, we will build our support network and spread the word about the work we do here at the club more effectively.
I started to plan, made calls and to my surprise within an hr I had an outline of our trip, within two hrs I had accommodation booked for our horse on all 4 nights. The kindness I felt from others lifted my spirits and I started to plot the journey in more detail.
the greatest adventure
is what lies ahead
I will keep you all updated on our progress, for
As some of you will already know Iris and I are planning more adventures, this time a ride along the Pennine Bridleway to raise funds for our Aquaponics Project. The plan is to explore 205 miles of the Pennines’ ancient packhorse routes, drovers roads and newly created bridleways in sections over this year.
A challenge which needs a great deal of preparation physically, testing out kit, getting the horse fit, solving potential problems….so we have made a start over the past 3 weeks with walks and many short rides. Now we are extending those rides up to 2 hours and including stops, practice getting on and off without mounting blocks, handling issues when they arise by ourselves and most of all having tons of fun mini-adventures.
Email your bid to me, Arabella at firstname.lastname@example.org
The Little Explorers Activity Club CIC is an
Our innovative project using aquaponics creates academic learning opportunities, independence and a deeper understanding of nature.
We are currently fundraising for the next stage of our Project, to develop an Aquaponics Workshop and Cooking Space. https://www.justgiving.com/crowdfunding/thelittleexplorersactivityclub
Aquaponics is a combination of aquaculture and hydroponics where the natural nitrogen cycle of fish in the water is used to create fertile
Our little Club maybe small but we do have a massive reach, last year we were interviewed for the Open University Course on Autism to help others understand our methods and approach. The Little Explorers has been working in conjunction with the Leicester University on the Dream Project to understand the ethics behind using robotics to help Autistic children and their families. We are always open to new ideas and approaches and will support research projects around the world.
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 email@example.com 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
A gecko ran across the whitewashed wall chased by Iris’s silhouette, a shadow tied to her as she tiptoed down the path beside the house. With her shoes on, she took my hand to the gate, ‘Let’s go riding’ she said, ready for the days adventure. Could this be the day where riding finally worked? I had been hoping it would ever since we first saw the horses riding along the dirt road to the bohemian beach town Montezuma. The seeds for this had been planted long ago. Just after her diagnosis at two years old we had tried many times to introduce Iris to riding but with very little success. I realised back then that my hopes were heavily clouded with my own desires and passions as I had loved horses and ridden since a child. More recently, I worked alongside another charity which used horses in their therapy program for children on the autistic spectrum: I was once again hoping that Iris might forge a connection with horses. They had been a massive part of my life so when I saw Iris was excited to see them, it sparked up my forgotten wish for us to ride together.
With the pristine beaches, virgin rainforest and abundant wildlife we were all in high spirits. In fact the only problem seemed to be very loud and boisterous monkeys keeping us up at night. That and the pesky coatimundi, who with their long snouts and sharp teeth were masters at breaking in and stealing our food.
We got in the 4×4 and made our way down the bumpy track, shafts of sunlight penetrating through the trees to the muddy terrain below. Iris pointed at a large Blue Morpho Butterfly for me to see. Its wingspan must have been around 20cm, with bright metallic wings beating slowly in the air. The butterfly was almost in slow motion, shimmering iridescent shades of blues and greens contrasting with its brown camouflaged underside. Each time I saw one I was filled with amazement. They are such an astonishing sight that your eyes long to hang on to them as long as possible, but they would float away with the breeze into the jungle, to be lost in the dense green foliage. In many cultures butterflies are associated with a deep and powerful representation of the soul and spiritual transformation. The blue is thought to symbolize healing. Many natives of the rainforest see the “blue butterfly” as a wish-granter. Before I lost sight of this blue sprite I made a wish: let this be the day that Iris and I could happily ride together.
We turned left onto the main road, twisting up through the tropical valleys where the ranch lay in a pocket of green fields. A strange sight in the middle of the forest: fenced pasture and cattle that looked like they should be on the African plains.
Iris got out and was greeted by a huge dog but she ignored him completely. She went up to the first horse that was already tacked up and tried to get on. She could be focussed to the point of seeming rude sometimes: I had to remind her to wait and that we needed to find out which horse would best suit us.
My plan was to ride with her sitting in front of me: that way I would be there for her, whisper to her about the nature and animals we saw and help her ride. I didn’t know how she was going to react to being on a horse again and I felt safer thinking at least I would be with her. It was how we had ridden all those years ago when she was 2 years old. But once we were on our trusty steed this time I realised a flaw in my plan: Iris’s height. My view was out to both sides and a little to the front but Iris’s sun hat obscured some of the way ahead.
We made our way out onto the track and through the jungle. The owner of Indiana Horse Tours, Deanne, rode beside me, I asked her why she had settled here: twenty five years ago she came to Costa Rica and didn’t want to leave. She bought a few horses and began doing the tours. Then she bought a little property and the herd became bigger so Indiana Tours became her way of life. She was trained as a veterinarian which explained why she was surrounded by animals: ten dogs and a few cats roamed the property. She talked to me about her ethos, how the horses lived in a herd and the softness with which she rides them. She respected the horses like I did, appreciating each individual personality and I felt at ease around her. Her approach seemed to reflect my own and reminded me both of my years in France with all of my own horses and the methods I use with Iris.
As we walked up a steep hill further into the forest I felt like I was in my early twenties, back in Venezuela, trekking through the Andes. I loved this sense of freedom as we strode on ahead of the others. It was a freedom I had thought was behind me: sometimes I feel lost in all of the responsibilities of being a parent of a unique special child. Horses had once been my life, and now after many years they were back with us. Most excitingly I could tell that Iris was finding a powerful connection too.
Her social skills had developed and she was able to engage with the people around her, take instructions and guidance where needed with very little stress. I hadn’t been able to understand before why riding hadn’t worked for her, but now the pieces were slotting into place. Iris had shut herself off to horses in the past because while she was with them, humans came along too. When she was little there would be someone either side of her, chatting and trying to get her to engage. At that point she couldn’t manage all the stimuli or deal with the sensory information coming in at her from every angle. It was too much.
That was where Thula excelled in Iris’s world, a silent partner by her side. I thought about what people do while they are with a cat: they make predictable movements, they sit beside the cat and stroke their soft fur, they speak in soft low tones and usually move away after a few minutes. Cats provide quiet moments of stillness that are moments of peace. Horses are all about movement and communication as herd animals: when we are with them we naturally mimic that type of behaviour and turn into more social beings. But that only works if we are ready.
As I understood this, it made me realise we need to see the whole picture, step away and understand what our children need and at what stage. Certain animals carry with them characteristics that will fit a child at certain stages in their development. I was realising the potential and how big the role could be for animals when working with children with additional needs. It may not always be a cat; it could be a dog or a horse, or even a farm animal like a goat who are hyper social animals. They all have their own qualities which we can work with to help our children, to aid progression and open up their worlds.
Iris watched the team untack our horse when we got back. She became fascinated as each horse was dealt with, going from the water station where they were sprayed and back again to the stable to see the next one. Her arms folded behind her back, she studied what was happening with great interest and even got involved in helping. Watching her, I made a plan in my mind to find more places where she could ride. Once home I would contact the equine therapy yard that we visited all those years ago and we would try again. It would be a chance for us both to learn.
There is no telling how independent Iris will become in the years to come and that can weigh heavily on my mind. But the more we pushed the boundaries of that potential outcome, the more something was released. The freedom began to come back and I could forget to care about all the ‘what if’s’. I could be there in the moment experiencing its joy with Iris. It felt like a perfect day. As we headed for home after spotting some monkeys, we caught sight of another pair of blue beating wings: it was as if the ethereal creature was telling me my wish had been granted.
We are raising funds for our next trip to see the incredible forests in California with Iris’s 2019 calendar
This will make a beautiful Christmas gift for your loved ones, spreading hope and autism awareness too.
We are led to believe that change is the very thing they struggle to handle. Theories and methods propose that to help our children overcome their anxieties we must implement a strong structure and routine into their daily lives, encouraging them to find comfort in that. A day mapped out in pictures, even a card presented for a change or an unpredictable event. It seems logical in one way: they are distressed by change so you make their world predictable to alleviate that discomfort.
But I began to wonder if in fact what we were doing was reinforcing the very thing we would like to flex. What I was observing was that a pattern had begun to emerge: the more freedom and movement Iris had, the more the rigidity of her condition was released. Each time this happened she would gain more confidence and relish the new encounter or situation. She became excited by the unfamiliar.
Had I without knowing it been guiding her towards this in the way I would pair up new experiences with her passions? Her first bike ride while listening to her favourite music, Thula on her lap at traffic lights, her violin hidden away in her bag like a comfort blanket at the music concert…Our days of education at home didn’t follow a timetable, they were free, adapting to the weather, to Iris’s mood, to Thula and to Iris’s own interests. The child I saw in front of me wasn’t afraid of the unknown, quite the opposite, she bounded towards it.
I made more of an effort to embrace this impulse and allowed Iris to adventure further. I let her walk on ahead of me and for her to decide which way we went. Her appetite for exploration exceeded my expectations, eager to experience new landscapes, trees, nature and wildlife. We left home every day and made it our mission to see something unfamiliar and learn along the way. I missed her hand in mine, but I got used to following her slim figure, walking in the footsteps of those bright rainbow boots. Iris’s hands flapped in excitement and moved in the air feeling the energy, delighted by secret undulations that seemed to exclude me from her experience. As hard as I tried I couldn’t feel what she could, so I felt it in my own way – seeing the joy in her. There doesn’t seem to be a purer feeling of happiness and it made me smile, taking away any sadness from the mystery.
Sometimes she would lead me to places I had no idea existed. On one memorable walk she found a woodland like no other we had been to before. It was as if we were transported to America, into the magnificent tall Redwoods. She introduced me to ‘King Tree’, a mighty tree that stood very tall in the avenue. We explored along paths, through streams and old ruins. Out there she loved me chatting to her. I made up stories and she would run along in front of me playing a part in the fairytale. She hid under bridges pretending to be a troll or a dragon flying in the sky. This was imaginary play that would have been nearly impossible for her in a noisy school. Her mind seemed free from the confusion. When she got tired she would lie down flat on the ground, looking up at the sky with her wellie boots splayed out to the sides, total relaxation till she jumped up and marched on. I admired her connection and faith in nature, I would be checking the ground before sitting carefully so as not to get wet or sit on creepy crawlies. She thought nothing of such things and trusted in nature, enjoying the unexpected textures, feelings, smells that it provided. She would tell me to ‘look up’ as we walked under the tree canopies and she took great delight in showing me something one day that I hadn’t noticed before. It was how the trees’ uppermost branches create patterns in the sky. In some parts of the wood they wouldn’t overlap at all and they left rivers of blue in between the crowns of leaves. It is a naturally occurring phenomenon called ‘crown shyness’ that I had never heard of, but now I could see how it created striking silhouettes, sometimes dramatic like lightning bolts, sometimes more gentle, like paths. As Iris looked up she raised her hand and pointed her finger, then traced along the lines of blue, mapping a journey in the air.
I began to take supplies in a backpack, snacks and water so we could stay longer in these newfound worlds. As each week went on the countryside around us seemed to shrink and I could tell she wanted more. I knew that feeling very well: what is around the next corner and over the next hill? Where would these adventures take us?
Inspired by our rainforest home ed project we came up with an idea of travelling to the ‘Forests of the World’. An undeniable traveller’s spirit continuing to emerge in Iris gave me confidence in going ahead with these adventures. She was filled with a curiosity that was no longer satisfied by her paintings, or the books that used to be her fortress in the confusion of autism. My old home-schooling system of pre-set topics and themes seemed not to be as powerful as it had been: Iris seemed to learn better on the spot and in the moment. She was changing, and my methods needed to transform along with her.
To find out more about our ‘Forests of the World’ Project visit this page
We are raising funds for our next trip to see the incredible forests in California with Iris’s 2019 calendar
This will make a beautiful Christmas gift for your loved ones, spreading hope and autism awareness too.
Spending time with a pet can be a valuable experience for a child, it was life-changing for Iris and I want to share with you some thoughts on how we can support, encourage and expand on these bonds to further our children’s development.
A French writer, Anatole France, once said that “until one has loved an animal a part of one’s soul remains unawakened.” I have to agree with that statement. The strong bond between a child and an animal assists in development of important life and social skills, personality traits, responsibility and empathy. Having a pet in the home can improve the quality of life of the whole family, reducing stress and depression. Animals also promote physical and mental balance within the home.
According to the studies, pets allow our children to feel more complete, happy, independant, responsible, and affectionate. Feeling responsible for and taking care of an animal will greatly improve the child’s self-esteem. They will feel useful, know that they’re doing a good job, and gain a lot of confidence in their abilities. For special needs children the sensory input they receive and the calming influence is incredible.
A good environment that facilitates a relationship between the child and their pet will improve the child’s integration into the family. An animal can be a very strong uniting force between family members.
Learning to respect the pet from a young age will make the child aware of the need to respect other people, their surroundings, and the environment. They are an excellent source of support for children during hard times. The unconditional companionship of an animal can alleviate sadness and fear allowing the child to overcome their challenges.
So it is clear that children and pets are a natural match, but that doesn’t mean your child should be left to their own devices with the animal. To help ensure safe, happy interactions between pets and children I would advise the following
Actively Supervise Interactions – monitoring body language, the child’s and the animal
Teach your child through your own actions how to be gentle.
Provide a getaway space to use if needed
Reward based learning will encourage both of them.
Adults need to be aware of a pet’s body language with children and should be prepared to intervene if a pet starts to be anxious. It is also important to teach your child how the animal uses their body to express their emotions, and that these communications should be respected.
Greetings, affection and play provide a routine for both your pet and your child. Rewarding these encourages both your pet and your child, helping to teach your pet to associate your child with good things happening in the home. Encourage them to join you with the child while they play and have a think about how you can tailor their games, education to include the animal.
Here is an example of some home education games that I was playing with Iris but I also made sure it was safe for Thula too. Think about seating, make room for them to be included where possible.
In 2014, I based a whole term of Iris’s education around a ‘cat’ theme to encourage Iris’s academics but also it helped their bond to strengthen.
Praise them for making good choices, like leaving a sleeping or eating animal alone, calmly inviting a pet to approach them at their own pace, or using gentle hands to touch.
Rewards reinforce good behavior in your pet and your child, and can help to ensure that the two of them will form a lasting bond. But try to keep the following in mind: It can’t be forced. However, if the child takes on responsibilities like feeding the animal, giving them clean water, bathing them, taking them for walks, including them in their play and education, rides in the car… their bond will start to grow.
Iris and Thula’s story has inspired many parents to think about a cat as a therapy animal in their own homes so here are some thoughts and practical advice that may help.
Choosing a kitten or rescue cat
It is important to understand the type of character you are looking for, what you want to achieve and why, before your search begins. For us, we wanted a highly sociable cat who would encourage Iris to play and explore new things.
So a lap cat that sleeps all day and wants strokes wouldn’t cut it for our needs. However, for another family who wants to encourage quiet chill time that maybe the perfect cat for them. The same goes with the choice between a kitten or older cat, think about if your child would like a bouncy playful kitten or would that upset them. For some children on the spectrum the unpredictable movement of a kitten maybe too much for them, whereas a settled older cat might be far more relaxing. Think long and hard about what you are looking for and why, I can’t emphasise this enough as it really is key to finding a good partnership. Certain breeds of cat will carry characteristics and attributes that will suit different roles that you would like them to be for your family. Research what would suit you and your child and ask if you can have them on trial first as some cat rehoming centres will allow you to do this.
Harness, Leads & Collars
I personally don’t like the thought of a collar on a cat 24/7 as it may get caught causing problems. If you want to introduce a harness and lead I would advise to do it in the early days, little and often. Pick a harness that has more material parts so it spreads the pressure and is more comforting and comfortable for the cat. Try it on at home where the cat loves to be the most and pair it up with playing with their favourite toy. Make their time in the harness fun and only for short periods of time at first and build on that. The same with the lead, most cats will need a great deal of time and encouragement to walk on a lead and this will have to be worked on slowly.
Indoor or Outdoor
This is such a personal choice that depends on many factors, your own home, garden and environment. Safety concerns like roads and heavy traffic will determine how comfortable you feel with letting your cat roam freely outdoors. Of course, it’s possible to add gates, high fencing to more or less cat proof your garden. Remember, they are agile, intelligent creatures and ultimately the best escape artists you will ever come across. They are naturally curious as all great hunters are and if they want to explore and be adventurous they will. Studies have proven that on average a cat will roam no further than 100 metres from their home but if you live in a town or city that will be a worrying thought.
We have made a choice to allow Thula to be free and trust that she will be careful. It is very important for her own wellbeing to have time to be a cat, to run, jump, climb, hunt, to use all of her senses in the environment that they were designed to be in. With large solid wooden gates at the entrance of the property I feel happy in the knowledge that at least that problem area has been dealt with. She has free access to fields and farmland at the back of our garden and she does have a large roaming area there. We have come across her hunting on our walks with Iris many fields away from the house but she always comes home and as soon as she sees us she joins us to go back.
Our way of life here includes open windows, doors, outdoor living and the animals coming and going as they please with even the goats joining us in the kitchen. It simply wouldn’t be possible for me to lock Thula up inside during the day due to Iris’s love of the outside. So fit in how you are with the animals with your lifestyle choices. I made the decision that what we could do was to lock her in at night to reduce risks and that has worked for us very well so far.
I believe they will follow you as long as there is respect and understanding. Some cats I’m sure will thrive on an indoor life if they are provided enough attention and activities while others need to be free. Think of our own choices, some of us love snuggling up on the sofa and watching films all weekend, nice and warm…while others climb mountains in the wild winds. We are unique characters, they are unique too.
Many of you will have seen pictures and film with Thula riding happily in the car and on our bikes. This was, like most things, to do with my approach – a slow introduction with lots of encouragement and positive reinforcement. It’s not something that I would suggest you do with every animal. It could be very dangerous for them if they are not confident yet, but if introduced carefully it can be a lot of fun for both you and your cat.
We started with very short car journeys when she was a young kitten, usually around the village twice a day. This helped Thula get used to sitting on Iris’s lap and she became more comfortable, so we could we gradually lengthen these outings.
It was a similar method with the basket on the bike. At first I would let her explore the basket while it was on the kitchen floor, after all it was rather like a box and what cat can resist getting into a box. Then I moved it outside and put it in a place where I knew she loved, this was Iris’s tree stump and she jumped inside the basket. It was introduced in a way that made it her choice to get inside which I feel is critical when you are working with a cat. Then eventually I carried her around in it, got her used to the motion, before finally adding it on the bikes and did little trips.
I feel that we shouldn’t hold onto ideas, thoughts or expectations when we bring a new animal into our lives. It can stop us living in the moment with them. Some of the most powerful moments between Iris and Thula weren’t led by me, they happened between them through intuition and I learnt so much by observing their relationship. There won’t be another like it, their bond is unique and the experiences between other kids and their pets will be too. Iris is now able to build relationships with others, they are different to what she has with Thula but these advances are brilliant and I’m very thankful to our special feline friend.
Next time I will discuss ideas about how you can encourage a bond between your child and the animal. Suggestions for games and how to involve the cat in your child’s early learning.
But for now if you would like to learn more about our story and haven’t read ‘Iris Grace’ here is the book
Photography by Arabella Carter-Johnson