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Last Updated: 02/23/2018

 Inspirational Stories

Story 1: Two Kids and a Mom

Story 2: Tall In the Saddle: Therapeutic Horseback Riding For My Son With Autism
by Marie A. Sherrett

Two Kids and a Mom

"Doctor, I 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 end! 


Child care 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 disabilities!


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.


Still living 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.


My ex 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 alone again.


From 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 in 2001. 


In 1988 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?" I asked.


With all 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.


My health 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 insurance!


I realized 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!


Mark's 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.


In 1999 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!


I decreased 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!


From the 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.


Sad facts 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.


Both sons 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.


After my 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. 


I pictured 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 soon.


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.


We went. 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.


According to 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.


Mark started 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.)


Mark was 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. 


Initially 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 quickly.


Mark only 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! 


Jackson 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 himself.


Alex would 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. 


One thing 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 after THR.


A language 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?" 


By 12/00 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. 


In early 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.


It goes 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.)


Because 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 of water!"


My Mother 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 himself.


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 riding.


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
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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 classes.  


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