Sam is reining in autism bit by bit

Sam Naysmith relaxes in the saddle as mum Gillian holds on tight
Sam Naysmith relaxes in the saddle as mum Gillian holds on tight
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A COLD, snowy day. Gillian Naysmith had spent four days with her autistic son Sam at a Highland riding centre hoping for a small miracle.

Day after day she persevered. Sam, who craved routine and was prone to tantrums, who would walk on tip toe and who communicated by making noises until eventually Gillian figured out what he wanted, seemed largely unmoved by the towering but gentle ponies in the paddock.

“It was the last day,” remembers Gillian with a smile. “We were in the snow, I was riding and he was sitting in front of me. And I finally felt him relax.”

It was a remarkable moment in a five-year journey that began when Sam was still just a baby. Back then, concerned by elements in his development, Gillian had taken her beautiful little boy for tests and was left reeling when told it was almost certain he was autistic.

That night she looked up “autism” on the family computer and ticked off each symptom and sign that matched Sam. By the end of the checklist, she was sobbing.

But now in this snow covered paddock in Argyll with a gentle creature which Gillian firmly believes somehow sensed her son’s fragility, Sam seemed to enter a new happier, positive and amazingly more settled phase.

Quite how it happened is a mystery – some believe the movement of the horse can open up learning receptors in the brain while the deep pressure of being held and spoken to from behind might help too. In some respects, it didn’t matter – what did was the results which left Gillian reeling.

“Sam completely relaxed,” she recalls. “At that time he was very strict to routine but suddenly he had quite a lot of changes.

“For a start he became much calmer. He’d take himself off to bed when he was tired. He started to drink from a cup for the first time and he started to try bits and pieces of food he’d never have tried before.

“We used to have a visual timetable – it had pictures on it which Sam would point to for when he wanted something – he stopped using that and started trying to communicate more.

“I was absolutely delighted.”

Small steps, but for Gillian and son Sam they represented a giant leap. And now there was hope that perhaps the vice-like grip autism held over Sam might just be loosening in a way Gillian and partner James Young had never expected.

Indeed, so struck was Gillian by the amazing changes she witnessed, that she now heads the UK arm of a global organisation – The Horse Boy Foundation – which aims to bring hope to families of autistic youngsters like Sam by reigning in the power of horses.

Not that any of this was what Gillian and James had planned for their futures back when they lived in Morningside and ran their sandwich shop The Lunch Box in Lady Lawson Street while waiting for their second child’s arrival . . .

Daughter Jaymi was four years old when Gillian became pregnant with Sam. He arrived, she recalls, in a rush and for the first year was “a contented baby, he fed well and settled easily to sleep”, she recalls. “A perfect baby.”

By the time he was one, however, Gillian was wondering when she’d hear his first word.

And at 17 months, she fretted over not only his lack of speech, but his awkward “tip toe” manner of walking, the way he ran with his head tipped to one side and how he seemed oblivious to anyone calling his name.

Anxious for answers, Gillian took Sam for tests. It was summer 2007, Sam was nearly two, cuddly and cute. And now a specialist was raising the possibility that he was autistic.

“I kept thinking she was wrong,” recalls Gillian. “Then I got home and I looked on the internet. I found a checklist of signs and ticked off every one. I could hardly believe what I was seeing.”

Children on the autistic spectrum often have problems with communication and understanding other people’s actions and thoughts. They can struggle to accept eye contact, often need strict routines to make them feel comfortable and social interaction can pose difficulties.

For Sam, there were what Gillian calls “meltdowns”, massive temper tantrums that could flare up with small changes to his day to day routine. And there was a single word – “No”.

So she consumed all the information she could related to her son’s condition, including a book called The Horse Boy written by professional horse trainer Rupert Isaacson, whose five-year-old son Rowan is severely autistic.

It told of the remarkable relationship his son had formed with the family’s horses – and suddenly Gillian, with her own lifelong love of horses, found herself wondering if Sam might find comfort from them too.

“Rupert wrote how he had tried to keep his son back from the horses thinking they might be a danger to him,” says Gillian. “Then one day he ran in front of his oldest horse, Betsy. She actually shooed all the other horses away and made sure Rowan was okay.”

Father and son went on a fascinating horseback journey which culminated in Rowan conquering elements of his condition he’d never shown progress in before. “Rupert started to bring other children in to see if it worked with them too and found in many cases, it did,” adds Gillian.

Eventually The Horse Boy Foundation launched therapeutic camps across America. And when news emerged of one in the UK, Gillian was determined to see if Sam could join in.

“I loved horses when I was young,” says Gillian, who grew up in Newtongrange and went to Newbattle High in Dalkeith. “I learned to ride when I was a bit older but stopped when I fell pregnant with Jaymi.

“I always believed there was something very peaceful and calming about horses, I’d tried other therapies and treatments with Sam and they hadn’t made a difference. I wanted to see this might work.” Gillian, 38 and James, 40, took Jaymi, now ten, and Sam to Ardlamont Estate in Argyll last January for one of the first UK Horse Boy Foundation camps. There, Sam finally showed signs of being released from the shackles of his condition.

“At first it didn’t look much was going to happen,” she remembers. “Sam was interested enough in the horses, he wasn’t scared of them at all. We would get into the saddle but he didn’t want me to let the horse move. We spent all day getting in and out of the saddle.”

On the last day Gillian helped Sam onto the back of a handsome chestnut and cream steed and suddenly felt the tension subside. “He completely relaxed,” she recalls. “It was an amazing moment.”

Since then six-year-old Sam’s communication skills and behaviour have continued to show signs of improvement – so much so that he’s settling into primary two at a mainstream school in Dunfermline, where the family now live after selling the sandwich shop to concentrate on running The Horse Boy Foundation.

Since taking over, Gillian has witnessed the benefits horses have had on around 40 families who have attended their special camps: “We’ve had children who have started to speak for the first time, I’ve seen parents come to us on the verge of divorce and just seeing the impact on their child has helped them immensely.

“Because the whole family is involved, siblings of autistic children come along too. They play with the horse – even paint them with special paint. It means brothers and sisters who have perhaps never played together before because one is autistic, can form an incredibly strong bond through horses.”

And the horses, adds Gillian, just seem to “know”.

“It’s a two way street – the children respond to the horses and they seem to know these are very special children. “It’s very strange, but I’ve seen it work and it’s amazing.”

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