The Yorkshire Post’s Christmas appeal is this year calling on readers to support the Autism Angels which uses horses to help children on the autistic spectrum. Ruby Kitchen speaks to the Webster family, whose lives have been transformed.
Faced with a ceaseless battle to keep her son safe, Emma Webster began to lose hope.
Having knocked on every door, in a futile call for help, she felt she had nowhere left to turn.
Struggling to control his emotions, young Kallum was lashing out at the world around him and his mother, frightened for his safety, resorted to calling on police for help.
Two years on, with the help of Autism Angels, their world is a different place. Escaping the narrow walls she had put up to make everything more manageable, the family are happy. And Kallum, a few days shy of his fourteenth birthday, is thriving.
“He’s a completely different child,” Mrs Webster said. “Autism Angels is a safe place for him to be heard. They’ve given us the tools to keep him calm, and to keep us together as a family.
“And that door has never shut on us. It’s an unconditional place, one where we know we will always be accepted.”
Mrs Webster, from Ripon, had begun to notice differences in Kallum when he was just a toddler.
“He was always alone,” she said. “He wanted to do the same thing again and again. When other children would run to new toys, he would always play with the same blue car.”
When she went to the GP, she was sent on a parenting course. Then another one. In the following decade, she saw as many as 15 professionals from a number of agencies, none of whom could give them a definitive answer.
Kallum has since been diagnosed with ADHD, a sensory-processing disorder and, perhaps most challenging of all, a sleep disorder. While it’s acknowledged that he’s on the autism spectrum, he still hasn’t been given a formal diagnosis because of all this running alongside. As a child, his parents were struggling to cope.
“It was horrendous,” said Mrs Webster. “We were in a black hole, that’s the only way to describe it.
“Kallum would go days, the longest stretch was 72 hours, without sleeping at all. He would just go on and on and on. And the slightest thing, it could be the wrong bowl at breakfast, or too much butter on his toast, would cause a meltdown.
“He would just go on a rampage, hitting or kicking out at the nearest thing to him. Smashed doors, smashed windows, he kicked a hole in his bedroom wall. I was frightened for all of us. For my safety, my daughter’s safety, for himself.
“There have been times when I just had to scoop him up and hang onto him, because I was afraid he would hurt himself. I would call the police, I couldn’t get him to stop.
“I was trying to get a social worker, but I was told our needs weren’t extreme enough. How extreme would it have to be? What has to happen, before we could get help?
“We were walking on eggshells. We isolated him, as much as he isolated himself, just to keep everybody safe.”
When Kallum was 10, Mrs Webster took the decision to home school him for a few months. Then, having secured a space at Harrogate’s Forest Moor School, they were told about a new therapy being offered with Autism Angels.
“We had exhausted every avenue, we were burnt out,” she said. “Nobody could help us.
“Autism Angels made a difference. It was enormous, and immediate.
“They focused on Kallum as a person, rather than on his autism or ADHD. They talk about mirror and learned behaviours, about interpretation of body language. All the services before had focused on what’s wrong with Kallum. Autism Angels focused on what’s right.”
The family, Mrs Webster and Kallum with his father Lee, sisters Kacey-Lou, 10, and Alexis, five, had initially gone to Autism Angels for a six-week course, having since signed up for more courses, family days and summer camp. Kallum is better able to control his emotions, and his medication for ADHD has been stopped.
“Working with Autism Angels was our turning point,” said Mrs Webster. “Before, Kallum wasn’t really there, he was always isolating himself. It has brought us together as a family.
“It has taken our relationship from strength to strength. It’s incredible what they do, and what the horses can do. We call them the horse whisperers.
“The kids just want to be at the farm, it is a second home for all of us. It’s our safe place.”
WHAT IS AUTISM?
Autism is a lifelong, developmental condition which affects how a person interacts with other people and how they experience the world around them.
Over one in 100 people are on the autism spectrum - around 700,000 in the UK alone.
It affects everyone differently, but many on the spectrum struggle with:
Social interaction: understanding thoughts and feelings of others and expressing emotions
Social communication: interpreting sarcasm or metaphors, or non verbal language
Repetitive behaviours and routines which can reduce fear and stress
Sensory sensitivity: sensitivity to sounds, touch, tastes, smells, lights, colours, temperatures - causing anxiety and even physical pain
HOW THE HORSES HELP
Research has shown that people around horses can experience many benefits including lowering of blood pressure and heart rate, increased levels of beta-endorphins and decreased stress levels.
Reduction in anger, hostility, anxiety and tension, improved social functioning and increased feelings of empowerment, trust and patience are other benefits.
Working with the horses, a mentor can role-model the behaviour that is expected - showing empathy towards the horse, kindness and consideration; and what happens if those are not met.
For example if a child rushes up to a horse and is aggressive, the horse would move away.
But the child can see immediately that when their behaviour changes towards the horse, the horse will connect again, allowing stroking and grooming.