Story 1: Two Kids and a Mom
Story 2: Tall In the Saddle:
Therapeutic Horseback Riding For My Son With
by Marie A. Sherrett
Two Kids and a Mom
don't know if I can do this," I said after my sons Mark and Daniel
got physicals by a new pediatrician.
"Do what?" he asked. "Raise these kids," I
replied. "I don't know what I was thinking." "As long
as you're consistent," he said,
"They'll be fine. They just need to know there's always
1 person to whom they must always
answer." I really doubted him then and my
abilities in general.
It was 1986.
Mark was 5 1/2 and Daniel 2 1/2. I had just returned to the
D.C. area from Tampa after a divorce.
There was no time to mourn the loss of the
marriage-I had 2 kids. I was awarded $200.00/month
child support. My brother paid the
move's expenses. Two sisters flew down to help. My now ex
acted stranger each day as our
departure date got closer. It was delayed when
I learned I had "broken motor mounts"
on a Pontiac station wagon (already in bad
shape as my by-then ex thought he was a mechanic).
With 1 credit card + $300 cash, I had
to get a job; put Mark (misidentified as ADHD+speech delay by
a private Tampa psychologist who had
never seen autism) in school; get child care
for both; settle in with my Mother and other
family members; borrow or buy clothes; etc.
I poured my
heart out to the MD County Public School System pupil personnel
worker in a 1986 letter from FL. I
described my fears, worries, concerns, life,
divorce, reasons, family, child support and all other issues
affecting Mark. I still have a copy.
Even in 2002 the same issues exist. They never
expenses and arrangements were always a nightmare. I pawned
wedding rings to pay for Daniel's
first day care center. Then I mistakenly
used a home provider for both sons. She kept Mark when he got
chicken pox, but I fired her on
learning: She was unlicensed; when her husband didn't work
she told parent our kids broke things
we must pay for, hoping we'd not
communicate; she tried converting kids to her
religion and a son ignored privacy. I
bitterly complained to school staff who had referred me to her. I
stopped using home providers when another didn't work, vowing
to help change things later. With my
Mother's inability to drive, deafness and encroaching
geriatric psychosis (but we didn't know then it's truly
what was going on with her) I could
seldom use her for child care. In fact, even with such an
extensive family of relatives as I
had no one EVER volunteered to provide child
much less respite care. I realized by 2002
many were actually terrified of
I put Daniel
is another day care center, paying first a sister and then a
staff person to bring him home. At my
Mother's idea, I trained teenagers (who
later got special ed, OT or speech degrees) to be 1:1 aides,
offsetting them with
recreation camps, respite care, relatives,
friends, etc. for child care. Mark didn't
get Summer ESY. I got creative with child
care yearly but its expenses didn't decrease
until 1993 when airfares to see their Father
replaced it. Child care was one main reason
I lived with my Mother for 6 years. It was a
busy home, though not ours.
in Tampa, the first year of our divorce my ex-husband saw our
sons 3 times. Meantime 3 sisters
married in 2 years. He didn't allow our sons
to attend 1 (which ended in divorce), sure it was held to lessen
his time with them. The second year
he sold the house, moved here and lived 1 block
from us. Can you imagine? It confused
everyone. I filed to increase child support.
No one told me I could move the case to MD.
Calls from him once I did so made it
mandatory I file telephone harassment charges against him. I
won! I left our sons here, flew down
and got $300/month support, paying legal
fees. After probation, he quit a job, moving
in with his Mother in Las Vegas.
He didn't see our sons 3 years. I spent time
trying to collect and enforce
support. ACES assisted me. Support payments for 2 sons never
got over $500/month. Until 2002 all
kinds of strange behaviors were exhibited by my
ex. Once both sons were 19 and 22, I blocked calls he did
from a home phone.
changed jobs yearly in NV. The USAF trained him as an electronic
technician. Years later he was self-
employed doing computers while residing with
various "roommates." It so confused Mark by 2001 he was
disinterested in ever going there
1986-1992 I changed jobs, getting more $ each time. This just amazed
me. I could not figure out why
law firms paid me more yearly. Daily I struggled
to get to work! I was never convinced each day when I left
my Mother's home I'd get to work on
time! Often the firms weren't either. This created many
problems over time. In 1986 I was at
a small one. It enabled me to use the (by
now) uninsured car as a down payment on
a Honda! Medical insurance wasn't the
best so I left, got better insurance, a Xmas bonus and danced at the
next law firm's party! The next law
firm had medical AND dental insurance. I
stayed 3 years, bought a home and moved in .
I began doing more overtime on Saturdays.
The next firm was a mistake so I walked out,
much to the disgust of all my sisters. I
came to my present firm in 1992. Yearly benefits
(including for Mark) and $ increase.
I've had ups and downs but I'll stay. I did
telemarketing calls for extra $. I worked overtime
1992-2000. I decreased that in 1998
when Mark got SSI. Child support (temporarily) stopped
County school staff said Mark had autism. I researched and dealt with
it by joining ASA but couldn't attend
Chapter meetings. In 1991 staff at the next
school recommended he go to a private special ed school.
In 1992 he did. I paid for Berard AIT
first for Mark so he no longer needed meds. I had been
so naive how untrained staff was on
autism. I paid out a lot of $ due to it. It
was all before the days of ESY, parent
training, staff training, education for
employment, daily living skills, etc. From 1993-1997 Consumer Credit
Counseling Service helped me pay mounting pile of bills.
Mistakenly filing a due process action
against the System in 1993 after private
placement didn't help. My retired Mother
assisted us financially. A family member
said I should have a budget. "What's that?"
this going on Daniel continued to amaze me. His ability to remain
upbeat astonished me. He saw a bright
side to everything and made friends easily.
An adjustment period after each LV visit got shorter. Daniel
hung in there despite $ problems,
changes in his school placements, autism, my job
difficulties and stress. He'd say at
times, "Well, there is 1 good thing ..." and
then fill in the blank.
from 1986 on suffered. I was sick Winter for years with my
schedule. Even decreasing attendance
at family events didn't help. I resisted 1
sister's suggestion to get an October flu shot, relenting in 1996.
It lessened a degree to which I got
sick. Not until 1991 and then again in 2001
did I agree with 2 professionals I had
general anxiety disorder; that it
contributed to my never-ending illnesses. Again, thank goodness for
how important the classes I'd taken in Parent Effectiveness
Training and Systematic Training For
Effective Parenting would be to help raise
my sons. It was hard for family members to understand my
ongoing single parent, autism, child
support and work problems. With little free help I
raised them with logic, PET, STEP,
books, research, networking, etc. I read to
them nightly. I taught them responsibility, handling
life as best each could. I shared
with them the good (bonuses); the bad (debt collectors); the
positive (holidays); the negative
(disappointments) and the downright ugly ($
problems) as we were a family. I also, as he
got older, was able to get Daniel involved
in various studies involving siblings of those with autism.
He so much enjoyed the attention by
specialists his friends got envious!
I wish I had
taken more pix then. I took my sons everywhere evenings,
weekends, holidays and vacations
while making friends. I felt it was
important for us to be together. I was Mother; Breadwinner;
Professional Legal Secretary; Parent
Advocate; Researcher; Entertainment Specialist--all in
1. Living with my Mother we did
activities and went shopping. I planned
events way in advance. They still remember we explored local
parks, the monuments; Baltimore, MD
Science Center, zoos, Sesame Place, malls, movies,
etc. I tried to make each feel lucky
(Mark) and unique (Daniel). I brought home
surprises from work or put new foods into
lunches. If I went somewhere Daniel would
say, "Bring me something."
I felt the
D.C. area had limitless opportunities for them to see new people
and enjoy themselves. Even though I
was often simply exhausted from all the
running around to try to tire Mark out in particular, I was
convinced I had no choice but to do
so. Later on, in comparison, I could see I did more as a
single parent with 2 sons than
2-parent families did, even if none their kids
were neurotypical. I always remembered the
first class teacher Mark had in Tampa
told me, "Mark needs to experience life." Has he ever!
private VA sp ed school provided related services. Boy, did we need
them. Daniel attended a sibling
group. Mark got OT, speech, SI, EFE,
ESY--everything. I learned about autism, special ed and behavior mod.
Parent training and support truly
began in earnest. Staff visited us and held each of
Daniel's pets. I had daily written
contact with Mark's school. They knew what
we did weekends, etc. Mark got counseling. I learned
about behavior mod; why it benefited
Mark so our lives could be a bit "normal." I even ran an
ASA Chapter and began giving talks.
Daniel did 40 community service hours, turned 16 and got a part-time
job. He had his own $, Mark got SSI
and I still got child support. Mark hiked
Saturdays and did therapeutic horseback riding Sundays.
From 1999-2001 MD DDA paid for home
renovations, 2 FastForward CD-ROM language programs,
therapies and Summer programs for
Mark. We traveled out-of-state. In 2000
Daniel worked 2 different part-time jobs. He
decided after HS he'd join the Navy for its
culinary arts program. He loved food!
ASA time due to politics, increasing other activities. I knew
about autism, SSI, child support,
behavior mod, ESY, EFE, OT, SI, Berard AIT
and wanted to tell others. I not only had experience raising 2
sons, I had knowledge to give people.
I was assertive with media, officials, parents,
researchers, staff, students,
teachers or professionals. I stressed to
parents how much things can change for their children if
they just advocated openly, honestly
and without fear of retaliation. I ransacked the Internet
looking for handouts, info, ideas,
suggestions, articles, entities, groups,
organizations, conferences, workshops,
seminars, contacts, etc. I found I was a
very quick learner, adapt in behavior mod techniques and gave
suggestions to parents frequently. I
loved doing it! I could sling acronyms with the best
of them! If I attended meetings with
parents staff sat up straight and listened
attentively to me. I was even introduced by a college
professor as a, "Parent
Professional." Who was I to disagree? It was difficult to
remember the old me!
start out-of-town trips gave an opportunity to not only relay new
info to people but spend more
interesting time with both sons in new cities.
Trips increased Mark's social skills while not seeming to do
so. In time he
learned even more appropriate plane behavior, ordering meals, room
service, taxis, etc. He had
to negotiate his way through hotels to get to his beloved
whirlpools, Jacuzzis or pools; be polite to staff; tip
drivers; help pack and carry baggage;
present ID for ticketless travel; buy souvenirs; see tourist
sites, etc. All this was incorporated
into school, IEPs and therapies.
In 2001 I
did a GW anxiety study, continuing with some ideas. Where before I
paid to be at conferences, I now
offer or am asked to give talks for free or
am paid. (Often Daniel asked, "How much of it do I get?")
Proposal research continues. I won a
2001 petition for lifetime child support for Mark. July
2002 it was reinstated at $200 per
month. I even paid off my latest Honda.
still exist: My relatives were clueless when my Mother's geriatric
psychosis was diagnosed. It meant
life changes for which they were unprepared
including sell (not rent) a home of 40 years; monitor
meds; get her to new doctors; fill
prescriptions on time; visit at a new site, etc. Despite me
getting a contractor's estimate, they
wanted all to do the work! It was then their
unexpected fear in the face of all
traumatic, lifetime disabilities was truly
evident. They read nothing, agreed with her doctors; balked at
suggestions and ignored my 20+ years of experience with
disability pros for Mark. In all ideas
discussed, e- ailed and conferred on, none
mentioned Mark: Could he help? Would he want
to? Did I have the time to do so? Was I
capable of such work? Where would he be if he didn't come with
me? Pushed aside was as a
single parent I suggested a contractor for efficiency's sake.
So, we left them to do it all as they wished. None
call us now. Daniel was amazed.
graduated in 2001 and are taller than me. Mark does supported work
but may try other jobs. Soon he gets
FastForward Language For Reading + a 1:1
weekend male aide/mentor, all paid by MD. A week
before Daniel left for basic
training, we went to the pediatrician 1 last time. Daniel got 2 shots
and a copy of his
shot record. I said, "Well, Doctor, I did it." "Yes, you did,"
he said. "You remember the conversation we
had when you first saw them?" I
asked. "Yes, I do," he said. "You raised 2 fine sons. You should be
proud of yourself." I am. It's now 2002 but
I'm not done yet.
Tall In the Saddle: Therapeutic Horseback Riding
For Mark, My Son Who Has Autism
In 1999 as then-President of the Prince George's County Chapter of ASA,
I did a presentation on autism at
Georgetown University Medical Center in DC at the
request of another parent. The audience included various
service providers. The session was
led by an M.D.
segment the mother discussed her son. I have seen through time
parents of those with autism have an
intense need to share their "stories" about
their children. The mother described how her son's autism
manifested itself beginning at a very
early age. She detailed his education and all the
therapies and treatments in which her
son had participated; what helped him and
what didn't. She said her son did
therapeutic horseback riding ("THR") at Rock
Creek Park Horse Center in D.C.
how Mark had been on 1-2 pony rides during his life and had seemed
to enjoy them. I remembered how
serious it was to him but that I at the time
was a nervous wreck, scared he'd fall off. It
occurred to me although it might be
an expensive "therapy" perhaps the reality might be the opposite.
I had done
little research into THR. I had tried years to see if I could get
Mark involved in it with no luck. His
private VA special ed school had taken him
twice and Mark spoke about the rides in almost reverential tones
at the time. I hoped I could take him
to do it on my own so I could watch him again.
Little did I know as I spoke with the
mother my wish for Mark would come true very
I always had
hopes and dreams for Mark. All parents of those with autism do.
We seek approaches, therapies and
treatments which will provide our children
success and ways to assimilate with others while
getting joy out of life and their
accomplishments. I tried to keep an open mind. I decided to call the
Center for further information.
From the very first time we entered the Center Mark was enthralled.
Mark's younger brother Daniel, who
does not have autism and joined the Navy at
18, although he came along often, had no interest
in horseback riding. He wanted to
chase the cats hanging around, pet the dogs waiting patiently while
owners rode or get something to eat.
a VA web site on THR, "Modern research has proven that the
horse's rocking motion and body
warmth can dramatically improve physical
ability, coordination, and morale. Horseback riding has since been
shown to be one of the most
therapeutic forms of recreation for people with all types
of disabilities. It offers a special
dimension of therapy for young people with
special needs, to include . . . autism. . . . Individuals
gain both physical and emotional
rewards through challenging and stimulating activities.
Riders improve balance, strength,
coordination, confidence, concentration and
self-discipline." Weeks of training are involved
before 1 get certified to supervise
THR. Alex Williams at the Center is one such qualified person.
12/99. At first he had no helmet of his own so the Center loaned
him 1 each time as it does to other
riders. Alex showed Mark how to put 1 on.
Mark was taught by her how to saddle a horse and brush it
down. He was also taught how to lead
a horse outside the stall to the open air. (Gradually with
time she faded out her assistance.)
encouraged to bring items for the horses to eat: Carrots, apples,
sugar cubes and chunks of alfalfa.
Mark learned from Alex the right ways to
feed horses each kind of treat. For the last 2 kinds he was
taught a sort of
flat-hand-over-flat-hand technique. Ultimately over time Mark
preferred carrots as a treat for
horses so they wouldn't make his "hand all messy." He
realized horses with riding bits in their mouths could
not easily chew alfalfa and the
resulting green drool was absolutely distasteful to him to see.
Mark was led into the training barn at the Center. There he learned
how to maneuver 4 different horses
Alex used for THR. Alex created elaborate
"mazes" which she soon learned was a favorite word for
Mark. With poles placed on the ground
Mark was taught by Alex how to turn a horse left and
right to prepare him to do the same
moves on trails. The acoustics in the barn
are such Mark could easily hear all the
directions Alex verbalized to him. The first
time at the Center I saw Mark on a horse I cried and cried. I
saw my oldest son with autism sitting
so high and "tall in the saddle" it took my
breath away. I don't know what came over me.
I was so moved. I remembered Mark as a small
boy with autism (although I didn't know he
had it at the time) many years ago in Tampa
and MD; different schools and medications.
Memories of years of struggle flashed
through my mind in split seconds. Yet, here
he was, high on a horse and in control. He
could not figure out why I was crying but he
knew something magical was going on; that it
was part of his "story," a phrase he uses to
refer to important points or milestones in
his life. After only 2 lessons no assistant
was needed; just Alex. Mark was learning
went THR Sundays due to my schedule. To him that was enough.
Sometimes Daniel came; sometimes he
didn't because of his work schedule or the
fact he was out of town. In 7/00 I hosted foreign
exchange students and brought them
with us. It amused Mark the students were
petrified of horses. You could see him
smiling to himself as they tried hard to
avoid coming near horses he himself had no trouble
feeding by hand!
By 9/00 I
saw Mark having what could only be described as "conversations" with
horses he rode. Some conversations
seemed longer than others. He would stroke
them, lean his head again their head, speak in
inaudible words to them and appear to
be in his own world. Alex said that was typical of those with
autism who came for THR. So, she gave
him time once his helmet was on to
communicate with the horse he was riding
before they started.
Each time a
new event occurred in Mark's life I told Alex as soon as we
arrived. Sometimes he was annoyed
about another student in his class. In that
event Alex would take her time with Mark, lead him on a longer
route or encourage him to make the
horse he was on trot. He learned he had to use
different muscles to do so. Once in a
while a branch would almost hit him ("I am
very disappointed in that branch") and he'd have to
remember that the next time they were
on the same trail to avoid it. Sometimes all the way back to
the car he'd pull branches down and
out of the way of those walking, "So 'they'
won't get hit." I never did know if he meant
people or horses!
ended up being Mark's favorite horse to ride, probably because he was
the first 1 Mark was on at the
Center, even though all 4 horses Alex used were
gentle. Another trainer said she believed the horses
could all tell when they had riders
with disabilities; they seemed to slow down instinctively. The
only true problem Mark consistently
had with Jackson was Jackson's tendency to
steer himself over to what to him was
apparently delicious poison ivy! "I can't
think why Jackson wants to eat poison ivy," Mark would say each
time. I noticed how gradually Alex
would make it so Mark was in charge of
Jackson while she got her horse. This way
Mark had no back-up and he was forced to
control Jackson's insatiable need to graze on poison ivy
encourage me to, "Take a break, Mom" so I would. I went to a local
bakery with Daniel to get rolls and
desserts to bring home or just a cup of
coffee. Sometimes I called friends or chatted with office
clerical personnel. Once in a while
Alex would alert parents of those with disabilities when we
were coming so they could discuss
Mark's THR with me; from whom I got the idea
and how long he'd been doing it. Sometimes
just that and watching Mark would convince a
parent to try it.
Mark always hoped would occur when he went THR was he would see
deer. Quite frequently this happened.
Whenever I told Alex Mark's week at school
had been difficult she always ensured they stopped
when they saw deer to truly take
their time to watch them graze and walk about. On those
occasions in particular the same
"Mark" who had spoken rudely came back like
he'd almost experienced a religious event.
That is the only correct way to truly
describe his complete change of temperament and attitude before and
specialist at Mark's school incorporated THR into his speech
therapy program. She devised lesson
plans where he had to fill in blanks. Later
I sent them to Alex for posting. Mark was very surprised
when he saw them and asked, "Hey, how
did that get here to the Center from me?"
Alex told me Mark was ready for a new step: She would be on 1 horse
and he on another. Naturally I was
petrified. Mark accepted the new concept in
THR easily; like it wasn't a big deal at all. To
celebrate for Xmas I got Mark his own
riding helmet. He was thrilled. By then he had a special black
bag he used only for his Sunday THR.
In 4/01 I
got Mark boot/shoes with heels. These also went into the black bag.
Alex knew Mark would be spending time
5/01 doing THR elsewhere. She was familiar
with the location and knew they had longer
trails. To prepare Mark she kept him on
Jackson for an extended time in 4/01.
6/01 we had a family crisis. I knew it would take me some time to
recuperate. I wasn't sure how long it
would take Mark. I told Alex this. Mark was
so confused he forgot to put his own helmet on. He
actually put on a Center helmet. The
same date he didn't change into his riding shoe/boots. I
was not prepared for this regression.
Alex told me if needed they'd start from the
very beginning, barn directions and all.
Luckily that wasn't necessary.
Also in 6/01 Mark decided he didn't need to feed horses any more ("The
staff can do it"). Alex and I were
surprised by this. I hoped it was a sort of
milestone for him; that he'd decided that part of his "therapy"
was no longer
needed. I worried perhaps I had been making too big a deal of it but
accepted this new idea. We
reminded Mark any horse he rode required a thank-you treat.
That he accepted.
By 7/01 Mark
also decided he needed riding gloves. He began using a pair from
our closet. By then Alex was teaching
Mark how to get on Jackson using a ramp or a
3-step wood structure. He had to learn to lift his leg
up to avoid getting stuck. This took
practice. I heard, "The saddle made my stomach
hurt" more than once. Yet he watched
intently as Alex would sort of swing herself
up onto a horse with no effort.
without saying I encouraged Mark to trust Alex completely so he'd
develop a trainer/trainee
relationship with her and trust. I never came along
on their trail THR times. I felt it was absolutely necessary
for Mark to have this kind of 1:1 THR
time. He knew he couldn't possibly blame her for
anything negative going on at school;
that she accepted him as he was and would
always be patient with him. (Now with me
she'd say, "Mom!" Mark would smile knowingly
if she had to stop me from re-prompting him on directions
she'd given him on the VERY RARE occasions I did so.)
flexibility was part of Mark's IEP it helped him learn to accept when
rain made THR at the Center
impossible. I would tell him about the
cancellation as soon as possible. Seeing the rain from our windows
helped to convince him but he assured
me there were no "cats and dogs; just tiny drops
and other relatives found it fascinating Mark did THR at the Center.
My oldest sister told me once our
deceased Father, a Grandfather none of the
grandchildren had ever met, had ridden at the Center as a
teenager. That is how long the Center
and the Park itself had been there.
To show her
admiration of Mark's newest kind of independence my Mother bought
Mark various horse- related clothing
like T-shirts and a hat. These items Mark
wore with such great pride I got more on my own!
He also shared pictures I took of him
on Jackson with school and recreational staff
persons. I always let the
school know if he did THR to see if they could get him to
discuss it. Only in writing would he do so,
though; not in art therapy. I decided it was
just such an important thing for him he wanted to keep
horseback riding a special secret all to
By 8/01 Alex
on occasion let Mark be in front of her in the trail. This was
truly incredible to Mark and he
seemed to understand how monumental a task she
was allowing him to undertake. "Wow," I said. "You were
in front of Alex. You are so lucky."
"Yep!" he'd say with intense pride.
Also in 8/01
I began including THR associations among those to whom I made
presentations on autism. I used Mark
as an example of how THR changes with time
and a rider's maturity level. I also point out how it
increases self-esteem. I constantly
saw other riders with disabilities beam with pride
after dismounting. However, with Mark
I pointed out the entire process was so
serious to him I had learned in time to respect
that viewpoint of his and to accept
it as well.
As I write
this I plan to get Mark horseback riding pants. I already know
where some of those specialized
clothing and equipment stores are. I have
even started getting a brochure which sells items for horseback
Mark is now
comfortable doing THR at other sites. From the start, Mark never
once said he wasn't interested in
going. That says a lot to me about the
benefits derived by Mark from the activity and the skill level of Alex
and her staff at the Center. Sunday
THR or at any other times he can do so will
probably always occur. I still recommend
parents look into it for their children with
any kind of a physical or developmental disability.
Sometimes I don't know who gets more
out of it: The parents or the children!
Marie A. Sherrett
Home E-Mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
MARIE is Past-President of the Prince George's County Chapter of ASA,
serving over 5 years. She began
helping parents Co-Chairing a Tampa Mothers Support
Group after attending community-based parenting