Autistic children are being given successful therapy in a world first – by riding on BUFFALO.
The youngsters sit on the rescued farm animals while being led around a field on the half-a-tonne beasts.
Some kids – many who are painfully withdrawn beforehand – can even muster a gentle trot while clinging to the animal’s horns.
The Buffalo Therapy Project has treated hundreds of youngsters with the condition, helping them to speak, play, build emotions and form bonds with the creatures.
The program – the only one in the world using buffalo for autism therapy – has grown from just a handful of people.
It now has dozens of youngsters involved every week after being pioneered by the Thai Army in Lopburi, central Thailand.
UK Autism charities have ‘welcomed the buffalo initiative’.
General Kajonsak Jonpeng (doub-corr), who organises the scheme with other soldiers, said: ‘We see children change from being emotionless and tense to having smiles and laughter on their faces.
‘Buffalo are huge animals, many people are scared by riding them. But the children with autism are often attracted to them.
‘They become friends, and like the contact. Parents say they have never seen this before with their sons or daughters.
‘Buffalo are friendly animals and they like kids. And the children get a real sense of enjoyment from sitting on them.
‘It’s a magical moment to see the thrill, adrenaline and joy on their faces.’
Equine therapy – using horses for children with autism – has become a popular alternative treatment in recent years, with a number of specialist centres around the world.
But the project in Thailand, which began in 2010, is the first time in the world that buffalo have been used to treat children with the condition.
The children are given art and music classes with soldiers, before they are taken on the buffalo for an hour.
Soldiers help them to play games while riding the buffalo, including hitting balls and mini races.
A typical treatment course includes around 20 hours of riding buffalo spread out over several weeks and doctors check the progress along the way.
The army began the therapy project after looking for ways that they could use buffalo they rescued from farms and markets.
They had heard of similar treatments using dolphins and horses, and believed that buffalo – used widely in South East Asia for farming – would have similar benefits.
After forming a pilot scheme with local doctors and several children, they saw positive results and continued the treatment.
Children are now referred from schools, doctors and hospitals across Thailand, and has even had visitors from Myanmar and Cambodia through word-of-mouth recommendations.
Kajonsak added: ‘The autistic children that have ridden buffalo have all shown improvements in their character, their mood and their confidence.
‘The children’s doctors and teachers all agree that buffalo therapy helps them.
‘We have helped children from across Thailand and some neighbouring countries, too.
‘Our King tells us to find ways to use buffalo. This is good for the animals and the children.
Carol Povey, Director of the National Autistic Society’s Centre for Autism, said this was the first time that buffalo had been used to treat children with autism and said the organisation ‘welcomed’ the therapy.
She said: ‘Research shows that pets can lower stress levels in some families, and we also know many autistic people and families who say they’ve really benefited from being around animals. But autism affects everyone differently so this won’t benefit all autistic people and may be overwhelming for some, particularly those who are acutely sensitive to noise or touch.
‘We haven’t comes across buffalo therapy before but have heard from families who have benefitted from interacting with or riding horses. It can be very expensive but, with the right safety mechanisms in place, we understand the feeling of a horse’s movement can be a really enjoyable sensory experience for some autistic people.
‘We welcome the development of new initiatives that have a positive impact on autistic people and their families. However, without any evidence there’s no reason to think that buffalo therapy might be any better than other forms of support involving animals. We would also advise anyone thinking of animal therapy, or indeed considering any form of intervention or support, to seek out reliable and robust information before making any decisions.’