I was reminiscing today about how the research program got started at Dream Catchers. Wade Johnson, MD, and member of the Board of Directors for Dream Catchers had come into my office- still down in the barn, in 2007 and talked about how touched he was that the first word a nonverbal child with autism had uttered was “Shea”, the name of her horse. I told him there were other anecdotal accounts of children saying their first word in connection with their experiences at Dream Catchers. His eyes lit up and we began finishing each other’s sentences as the idea of research at Dream Catchers came to life. During the subsequent years, Wade worked on the research- looking for any and every professional journal article in medicine that made any reference to “horse” and “autism”. My focus was on building the program and developing funding. Then Wade recruited Sandy Ward, Ph.D from the College of William and Mary Department of Education. The research ideas began to heat up. Sandy brought her husband Tom Ward, the assistant dean of the education department at William and Mary and Kelly Whalon, another professor. Nancy Hawfield, a volunteer and speech pathologist joined the team. The momentum built exponentially. We submitted complex grant applications…but did not receive funding. Like that radio commercial for the people who make quality brass beds…we didn’t care, we pressed on anyway. Kelly Whalon completed a qualitative study of four students with autism. That study is being presented at the National Association of School Psychologists in San Francisco later this month. Sandy created a study of 22 students with autism who are in self-contained classes in the Williamsburg James City County public schools. We found the funding for some tests—the Child Assessment of Behavior and a scale that assesses sensory issues. Kim Wendell, a NARHA certified instructor and our School Group Coordinator worked with the teachers to get the assessment tools completed. We thought we were finished gathering data in December. Karen Davis, the Director of Special Education for the WJCC school system had been listening to the teachers of the students who were riding and on whom we were gathering data. She gained approval for four more weeks of riding after hearing the anecdotal reports of how much the students were gaining. The ten weeks as opposed to the original six weeks is critical to evaluate a variety of factors and to compare our results with another study in Texas of which we recently learned. The students came back today….and today; a non-verbal student with autism told his horse to “walk on” as he led his horse.
On Friday, we hired a part-time research coordinator, Kat Rusnak, who has been assisting Sandy Ward and Kelly Whalon. An anonymous donor has been paying attention to the efforts of the research team, and the fact that the research needed more support. The position has funding for a limited time. Our hope is to win research grants that will subsidize this position. Today we learned that the current study will be presented to the Virginia Psychological Association at the Homestead in April. www.vapsych.org
Wade also decided to count and categorize every student served by Dream Catchers starting in 2007. This was a daunting task. Kim Wendell has worked alongside Wade helping him make sure there is no duplication. A quick funny story—last week I asked Kim for a recommendation for a local dentist because husband is a well-respected orthodontist here in town. She said, “Dennis, we don’t have a Dennis, we have never had a student named Dennis.” Need I say more?
The reality is that when I came to Dream Catchers I wanted to do more than be helpful to a few students in our region. My ego wanted to have a bigger impact. I had worked at the local state and national level on a variety of programs. I was thrilled at Wade’s idea of research. It took lots of effort to see the outcomes of those ideas. The research would not be happening if it were not for Wade Johnson, M.D., even though he hasn’t “done” the research…that has been handled other team members. Sandy & Tom Ward and Kelly Whalon…and Kim Wendell, Nancy and Ed Hawfield, and Kat Rusnak inspired and led by Wade Johnson, MD… We are the Research Team of Dream Catchers—with help from every volunteer, and the rest of the Dream Catchers Team…and the special education teachers…..
Please click on the NASP DC Research Handout PDF for the first results of our 1st Reasearch Project!
“It is amazing how much you can accomplish when it doesn’t matter who gets the credit…”unknown author
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