My son Riley likes to go
to the racetrack. Going to
Monmouth Park is part of our summer weekend routine that usually includes a
visit to a water playground that is a short distance from the track. Like most kids he really enjoys these
activities, but if you were there you would quickly notice Riley. He is the one at the spray ground that
doesn’t play with other children but he is extremely happy to kick up the water
so that he can watch it splash in the puddles. At Monmouth he likes to stand at
the rail by the tunnel that leads from the paddock to the track. It is there that he can get the best
view of the horse’s feet moving or where he can lay face down and feel the cool
linoleum floor. My son Riley is
eleven years old and he has autism.
Autism is a complex
disorder that affects brain development and is characterized by difficulties
with social interaction and verbal and non-verbal communications. Repetitive
behaviors are a common in children with autism. Children with autism have
trouble making eye contact and communicating their needs.
It is believed that the
abnormal development of the brain begins before the child is born. In the past five years there has been
more and more evidence that autism may be caused by unusual changes to the
genes known as mutations. These genetic anomalies cause changes in the brain
that are very difficult to identify. Parents of children with autism often talk about a feeling that something
isn’t quite right with their child.
These differences can be a lot like the development delays that can
occur in typical children. It
isn’t until age two to three that the significant effects of autism become
clear. There can be sudden losses in language skills – a child that could talk
no longer can. The child can fall
into a kind of isolation because they are no longer able to socially interact
with other people.
Horse racing and autism
have had a connection over the years. There is a very successful thoroughbred
named Autism Awareness. His owner Johnny Taboada named the horse to
raise awareness because his son also has autism. Autism Awareness the horse has
won over $300,000 in his career including two wins in grade three stakes races
The 2010 Horse of the Year Zenyatta had a special relationship
with a five year-old boy with autism. The big mare was known for her calm and
cooperative disposition around the racetrack barn. Since the boy has autism he
didn’t know how to interact with a horse, but he was immediately drawn to the
famous mare. Zenyatta patiently allowed
him to poke and prod her.
Once a week in the spring
my son’s class from school travels to a stable for horseback riding. The stable is certified to offer hippotherapy. Hippotherapy has its roots in the 1960’s in
Germany where it was used to supplement traditional physical therapy. Over the years the use of horses has
proven to be therapeutic for mental and developmental disorders as well. Riding
a horse improves balance and muscle coordination and the motion of the horse
has a significant influence on children with autism.
On the day that I
accompanied my son’s class to riding I saw that one of his classmates was
having trouble with his behavior. When they finally got him on the horse a big
smile lit up his face. As the horse began to walk the movement felt so good
that this boy bent over and rested his head on the horse’s neck.
You must keep in mind that
my son is a handsome young man who in his own way is very charming. Riley is extremely affectionate and can
be a lot of fun to be around. On
the other hand, he is non-verbal, which means he cannot talk. His spoken
vocabulary is limited to some consonant sounds, noises, and a couple of
words. Riley’s listening
vocabulary is much greater, so he can understand far more than he can
speak. You can often identify a
child with autism by the kind of sounds that they make.
Like any other child Riley
likes to have time to himself and when he is by himself he likes to spin
objects. The visual movement of
the objects is an exciting sensory experience for him. When my wife and I want
to buy Riley a present we look at everyday objects and try and imagine how he
might spin them. This type of self-stimulating, behavior, known as stimming is very common in kids with autism. You also may
see kids rocking back and forth or flapping their hands.
For parents of children
with autism life is a daily challenge.
Some of us eventually must come to understand and accept that our child
will never be able to talk or to live independently. Please take a look at this
recent TV commercial. It
points out this struggle that all parents, who have a son or daughter with
autism, have gone through.
In that commercial the
parent Jimmie says, “There’s nothing wrong with the way he is, it is the world
that views him differently.” Jimmie is correct, but we are treated differently
because people don’t know what to do when they face autism. Frequently when I
meet people that know my son and me, they do not acknowledge his presence;
however, they would routinely greet a typical child in that same situation.
I was like every other
father: I looked forward to sharing experiences with my son that I enjoyed with
my Dad. I looked forward to those days when I would take my son to the
racetrack and I have been able to do that. Riley has already been to Monmouth Park, Saratoga, Aqueduct,
and Philadelphia Park, and someday he may catch up to the 20 or so tracks that
I have visited.
Even though Riley will
never be able to handicap a race and enjoy the sport in all the ways that I do,
I am proud to bring him with me to the track any time that situation is
appropriate. If you see us at Monmouth
Park standing at the rail by the tunnel, please come and say hello because we
just want to be treated like everyone else.