Jordan offers important programme for autistic children

Friday 18/09/2015
Jordan’s Princess Alia speaks in an interview with The Arab Weekly.

Amman - Children with au­tism in Jordan are interacting with horses to explore their connection with their sur­roundings.
The method, established in 2010, is part of a na­tional programme called Growing Together, supported by Princess Alia, the eldest half-sister of Jor­danian King Abdullah II. Alia has a passion for horses and, besides overseeing the programme, has been providing the animals for psychotherapy.
Known as the Equine-Assisted Therapy (EAT), the project in­volves equine activities, super­vised by a trained therapist, with a patient and a horse. It promotes physical, occupational and emotional growth in people with mental or behavioural disorders, such as autism.
“My two gems, Mohammed and Tamim, are exhibiting a noticea­ble improvement,” said the father of twin boys who have been in the programme since July. The man said he preferred to remain anonymous.
“In a matter of a few weeks, the boys started talking and dealing with people,” he said.
“This is really a miracle.”
Sitting in her office at the Royal Stables, Alia said the programme “has so far been a success”.
“It touched the lives of more than 1,200 children and their families,” Alia said.
Referring to the horses, many of which are of the original Arabian breed, the princess said, “God willed it. We have a lot of horses, including many that are retired from sport and breeding and it’s only natural to benefit from them and give them a role to play rather than just exist.”
“Horses love to have a role in life. In this case assisting children and people of all ages,” explained Alia, who is also president of the Royal Jordanian Equestrian Federation.
Children involved in the programme “walk or ride the horse and enjoy the scenery. The relationship between the child and the horse is unique and most of the children who went through this therapy learnt to express their feelings for the first time,” Alia noted.
The Arab Weekly escorted three autistic children during in-the-field therapy. The children walked, cuddled and spoke to the horses on a path between pine and cedar trees, aroma-filled gar­dens and playgrounds at the Royal Stables in Al-Hummar on the edge of Amman.
Programme supervisor Reham Mutwala said patients ride horses without saddles “to communicate better with the animal by touch­ing it or leading it”.
“The essence of the programme is to find a special link between the horse and the child so they can react in a safe environment and that’s when the healing pro­cess kicks in, she said.
Mutwala said the programme has drawn patients from the United States, Germany, Britain, the Palestinian territories, Libya and Gulf Arab states.
Dr Raad Alsheikh said the programme is the only special­ised one for autism treatment in Jordan. “We have what it takes to treat autism, from animals to skilled staff,” Alsheikh said.
Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is a term for complex disor­ders of brain development. It is characterised by a wide range of symptoms and levels of impair­ment that can involve social interaction, verbal and nonverbal communication and repetitive behaviours.
Scientific evidence suggests that genetic and environmental factors can contribute to the onset of autism.
Autism statistics from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says about one in 68 American children are on the autism spectrum. In many com­munities worldwide, the ratio is one in 25. In Jordan, it is believed that there are about 10,000 people on the autism scale.
According to Princess Alia, Growing Together is a child-led programme. “The children are the decision-makers, with the belief that if they have control over their activities, they will grow and develop positively with the un­derstanding that they are able to make decisions and express their likes, dislikes and needs,” she said.
Initially, each child has a private introduction to the horse to assess the level of interaction. Although early meetings may cause chal­lenging behaviours, those often soon disappear. Once the child and horse bond, the sessions progress at the child’s pace under the supervision of a caregiver or therapist, Alia said.
“We know that many people with autism are in fact geni­uses and have the potential to be extremely creative,” the princess said. She said patients are “defy­ing stereotypes as they continue to come out of their shells and interact with the horses and the natural world around them”.
One boy, who used to sit and stare vacantly at the ceiling, now interacts not just with the horse but also with his instructors, she noted.
The princess said that aware­ness is the key and the society should be more open-minded re­garding autism. “Families should not be embarrassed because God created each person for a reason; it is just a question of finding the right key in each case,” she said.
The programme costs $45,000 annually, which is financed through the princess’s foundation.