Easy riders

Buffalo are giving autistic children a new lease of life

Four-year-old Kansak Lawakul was standing on a huge rock watching his friends and their parents swimming joyfully in a waterfall. He wanted to tell them how much he would like to get into the water and play with them. Yet, he found himself unable to communicate this.

So the little boy barked. And suddenly everyone gave him a weird look.

"A match burns itself so that it illuminates. My son is like that," said Kansak's mother, Varinthorn Lawakul, mother of two and a healthcare academic. "He was ready to communicate and drew the attention of people, even if it meant shaming himself."

Kansak was diagnosed with autism at the age of two. The boy did not babble nor point his finger at things, and had poor eye contact with others. He seemed to retreat into his own world and did not care about what people around him were doing. Many times when he was taken to a shopping mall, he would wander aimlessly, get lost and did not seem to be bothered about finding his fretting mother.

For Varinthorn, the diagnosis of her son's illness was like a lightning bolt striking her. Even though her co-workers always encouraged her to be strong, she never received any emotional support from relatives.

"I love riding buffalo. It is so much fun," said Kansak, now six years old, showing no sign of the condition. "Buffaloes are very kind. There is no buffalo at home so I come here quite often to get on their back. They are lovely."

Buffalo therapy for children with autism _ a therapeutic project originated and run by the Artillery Centre in Lop Buri province, is what Kansak loves to do. The little boy has undergone the therapy more than 20 times, and according to his mother is getting much better.

"People would not know my son suffers from autism because he looks and behaves normally," said Varinthorn. "He can write, speak and tell stories properly. He also shows more confidence in whatever he does."

Art therapy allows children an opportunity to strengthen their muscles plus their gross motor skills and fine motor skills.

The brainchild of Maj Gen Boonthum Oris, commanding general of the Artillery Centre, the buffalo therapy project was initiated in 2008 after the centre bought 20 of the animals from slaughterhouses in Lop Buri and nearby provinces with the merit dedicated to HM the King.

Maj Gen Boonthum came up with the idea to set up the buffalo therapy programme to help children with autism, who usually are neglected and underserved by society.

"It is very important that we, people in society, do not overlook the importance of children with special needs. If we provide them with the right support, they can grow up with the potential to achieve many things they dream of. So it is our responsibility to make sure that these children are not society's burden and that they can one day survive the world out there," said Maj Gen Boonthum.

But why buffalo? Thais usually associate these creatures with stupidity _ the beast in common slang is equalled to a moron. Yet, project supervisor Sgt Maj 3rd Class Kajohnsak Janpeng thinks otherwise.

"Buffalo are generally slow, gentle and careful. And most importantly, they can be trained," he explained. "And while they move slowly, children sitting on their back will not panic. And because a buffalo's back is wide, children can sit on them with confidence."

Buffalo suitable for the therapy must be over the age of three, added Sgt Maj Kajohnsak, as younger ones can be a bit wild. Prior to the therapy the animals are trained, following verbal orders and learning to walk steadily. Today, there are more than 60 buffalo in the project.

Children with autism usually are problematic in three areas of development _ social interaction, language and behaviour. Buffalo therapy is designed to improve these three areas, said Maj Tuntigon Tipjutar, programme designer. The programme also incorporates music and art therapy.

''Music therapy allows children to improve their language skills, while art can help with their behaviour,'' noted Maj Tuntigon. ''These activities are proven to help boost their imagination, and when they meet other kids who also come for the treatment, they develop social interaction skills too.''

Sgt Maj Kajohnsak explained that prior to therapy, children will be evaluated by specialists in order to pinpoint problematic areas in development. In each session, they will be introduced to music and art therapy.

According to the project supervisor, not only does drawing benefit a child's imaginative skills, it also allows children to strengthen their muscles, including their gross motor skills and fine motor skills.

After music and art therapy, which takes about 30 minutes, children are taken for a buffalo ride for 50 minutes.

While riding the buffalo, children will be asked to complete several tasks, such as throwing balls into a basket, hitting hanging balls, pressing horns, as well as being asked to raise their hands or spreading out their arms.

''Riding a buffalo is not as easy as it looks. If you cannot maintain balance, you will fall off. So buffalo riding allows children to improve their balance and at the same time gain stronger muscles. And while children learn to listen to assisting soldiers, they practice their communication skills too,'' said Sgt Maj Kajohnsak, adding that each course comprises 20 sessions. Each session takes place on Tuesday and Thursday from 3pm to 5pm. And all the activities are offered free of charge.

After buffalo rides, children get a post-therapy evaluation in order to assess their condition and see if they show signs of improvement. This is carried out by medical specialists.

And for Kansak, buffalo therapy gives him more than just social interaction, language and behaviour improvements.

''When my son is surrounded by soldiers, he absorbs their strength and manhood,'' said Varinthorn. ''He becomes more active and confident.

''He never wanted to become a soldier before. But recently he told me when he grows up, he wants to become one.''

And of course, safety is the first priority during the buffalo therapy sessions, said the project supervisor. Each kid is attended to by three soldiers. Children are also required to wear protective gear, including a safety helmet, and knee and elbow pads. The buffalo also wear a special type of horn protection hats to prevent injuries that may occur.

To ensure the project's sustainability and efficiency, in 2011, a Memorandum of Understanding was signed by the Artillery Centre, the Khao Pra Ngam Tambon Municipality and the Lop Buri Panyanukoon School _ a school for children with disabilities. While the Artillery Centre is responsible for the treatment, the Khao Pra Ngam Tambon Municipality has agreed to give financial support, while the Lop Buri Panyanukoon School will screen and send children for the therapeutic programme.

As a mother, Varinthorn strongly wishes that all the treatments Kansak receives will allow him to gradually recover from his illness. The little boy's future does not have to be bright and wonderful, but at least his mother hopes that her child will be able to be responsible for himself and survive in society without having to be dependent on others.

''It is too bad that children suffering autism are still stigmatised in our society,'' commented the mother. ''When people see kids with the illness, they usually ask questions like why it happens, how it happens and so forth. This sort of questioning is something that, many times, does not need to be answered.

''So instead of asking such questions, why don't we, as adults, join hands and help these poor kids? Even though they are sick, if they are given the right support, they can be better off in society. So parents must be very strong, patient, understanding and supportive. And we have to make sure our children will be able to live by themselves when we are not with them anymore.''

A buffalo riding session helps create better body balance and improves communication skills. (Photo by Jetjaras na Ranong)

About the author

Writer: Arusa Pisuthipan
Position: Muse Editor