When I was asked to coordinate Saddle Up for Autism this summer, I immediately felt overwhelming excitement and nerves simultaneously. For those of you who don’t know, the American Autism Association’s Saddle Up for Autism program is an 8-10 week program in Miami, Florida for children with autism. The program consists of spending Saturday mornings riding horses, doing educational activities, arts or crafts, and playing games. I have always loved spending time with kids and am a huge animal lover – so you can probably assume I was thrilled at the prospect of being around horses every weekend.
Before the program started in May, I thought one of my biggest challenges would be consistently engaging a unique group of children week after week. If I have learned one thing from my time at the American Autism Association, it is that every person on the autism spectrum presents differently. I was worried I wouldn’t be able to create activities that they would all enjoy and want to participate in. The funny thing about this was what worried me in the beginning easily became my favorite part of the program by the end. I loved learning about each of the children and their interests. Camila wanted to be covered in paint; Madison always drew something incredible; Adrian constantly crawled into the hammock or tried to sneak a gummy snack out of the cooler; Nico loved to splash in the puddles; Viri was always trying to snuggle with a ranch dog or cat; Liam wanted to play with the ball; and Chris spread sunshine everywhere he went with his contagious smile. When you put all these children together, you can see that there is no one-way to define an individual with autism. It was a pleasure getting to know each of them as the amazing individuals that they are.
Of course, it wasn’t all sunshine and rainbows. There were certain things that served as a challenge, but I learned to adapt quickly. I’ll be the first to admit that I would have activities planned down to the t that never actually panned out. I would try to get the children to engage in certain activities but, as most children are, they were easily distracted and much more interested in their own ventures. The large, open spaces of El Paso Ranch added to this difficulty, as the children yearned to run throughout the ranch to interact with the variety of animals. It was a learning experience for me, but one that I genuinely enjoyed being a part of. Working with this group of children gave me such a great perspective, and for that, I am very grateful.
I also can’t write this without mentioning their experience with the horses. The sheer excitement that crossed their faces when they get on the horse every week is indescribable. On the first day, I wondered if we would struggle with some of them not wanting to get on, especially as most had little experience with horses. Yet, every single child jumped on with minimal encouragement. Despite some children with autism having their daily struggles with sensory processing, there were no hesitations involving the horses; it was incredible to see how willing and happy they were to ride. I would often hear, “Is it my turn yet? I want to go on the horse!” loudly exclaimed, or a more succinct, “Horse, horse!” It was in those moments that I would revel in the fact that these children were getting the opportunity to connect with an animal and their peers that they wouldn’t have had without the Saddle Up for Autism program.
I would like to say a huge thank you to Carlos and the team at El Paso Ranch, who makes this program a possibility. Carlos’ dedication to helping children with autism is admirable. Also, I would like to thank all the volunteers who gave their time on the weekend to help out – I greatly appreciated each and every one of you.