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Humans are accustomed to turning to dogs, cats and even horses for comfort and companionship. But now another type of livestock is becoming more popular for its therapeutic appeal: the donkey. As WGBH’s Cristina Quinn reports, equine therapy has branched out to include the smaller, less majestic relative of the horse, and it’s delivering relief for children with autism.
The human-animal connection has long been known for its healing qualities. We love our dogs. We love our cats. And you might have heard of equine therapy, working with horses to help treat mental health conditions.
But, as Cristina Quinn from PBS station WGBH in Boston explains, there's another animal in town that is gaining favor in the therapy world.
It's only his fourth visit to the farm, but 8-year-old Memphis Rose looks like an old pro, feeding donkeys Pumpkin and Jack, alongside with his licensed counselor, Megan Moran.
You know things about donkeys. What do donkeys like?
They like hay.
We know they like hay. We know they like food. So maybe we could motivate them. What do you think?
Memphis started coming to Cultivate Care Farms in Bolton as part of a treatment plan for his autism. He says, when he's here, he feels calm and happy.
What is it that makes you happy being out here?
That the animals are covered in fur, and when you pet them, they feel soft.
They're soft. They're cute. And it turns out, donkeys, in particular, can help people with autism learn how to read social cues.
So now you can pet them, right, because they're close.
While animals have long been used to help treat mental health issues, there is no hard science to back up why it works. Still, there is no doubt that animals in some cases can help kids with their anxiety.
Their needs are pretty basic and concrete. So you can get a lot of cause and effect, which is really helpful, especially when clients are then needing to figure out how to navigate the real world.
And the real world can be tough for a kid with autism. Memphis' mom, Paula, says, before coming to Cultivate farms, he struggled with the long school day.
He would come home from school very anxious and angry and just, you know, go to his room and scream, because what's happening in school is, all those feelings and those anxieties are being, like, repressed.
But since he started hanging out with Megan, Pumpkin, and Jack a few weeks ago, the daily meltdowns have tapered off to maybe one or two a week.
I think it's easier for him to come and talk to Megan because he sees her almost like a friend, and this is like a very laid-back place, more than just going into an office and talking to a doctor.
That's part of the idea behind the care farm approach, taking therapy out of the clinical setting.
We can really try out situations where, what would you do in this type of conflict, or how can you socialize or spend time in another person's space? Like, what is appropriate?
Founder and executive director Andrew Lapin says what takes months in an office setting takes only weeks here.
I think it's important that we consider donkeys more in treatment, that we have put this huge emphasis on horses, as these beautiful and majestic creatures, which they are, and there's a lot of humans that don't identify as beautiful or majestic.
But, with a donkey, you catch just about everyone.
Helping create an environment where children with special needs can feel more comfortable with themselves and their surroundings.
For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Cristina Quinn in Bolton, Massachusetts.
I love that story.
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