It was good to see you last night as I was coming for the parent conference with Stephanie at the Pegasus stables. The conference went very well, but I wanted to let you know something more about the kind of progress that my son Thomas has experienced in recent years, as it is now his fifth anniversary of riding at Pegasus!
As you know, Thomas has a severe case of regressive autism, a severe/profound intellectual disability, and he is a non-verbal child. Having stated those facts, I would also like to add that, as a 12 year-old boy, Thomas is really quite normal in that he likes to do physical things, such as swimming in the pool or riding on Mr. Clyde at Pegasus.
There are, of course, many people involved in helping Thomas to make progress in his ability to relate to those who are around him, to become more aware of and to be able to participate in all sorts of different kinds of events and activities, to develop skills specifically for his activities of daily living and, very importantly, to work on his functional communication. These people include Thomas’s family members, his physicians at CHOP, his teachers and therapists at Bancroft School, and certainly also the dedicated staff at Pegasus Therapeutic Riding Academy.
The effect on a child such as Thomas of regular structured activities, such as his riding Mr. Clyde each Sunday afternoon and being gently challenged to develop and increase his skills in relating to the horse and handlers, is clearly a cumulative thing. Nevertheless, over the years, we all see the hard work, the patience, and the love that people have provided to Thomas have offered him an enormous benefit. On a personal level, I can mention a few specific things that will make my larger point more clear.
For example, when I take Thomas to the New Jersey Shore for a summer day trip, it is very evident that his alertness to his environment has increased dramatically over the past several years. Thomas now understands the process of getting onto the beach and he is significantly more able to follow my verbal directions. Thomas is now aware of and plans his response to the waves when he is swimming with me in the ocean. I firmly believe that the motor planning skills required to participate in his riding of Mr. Clyde have been helpful for his planning skills in general.
Another example is that of Thomas recently being able to be a complete and total participant in the Weening family celebration of his grandmother’s 90th birthday. The celebration of my mother’s 90th birthday was held at Longwood Gardens and it included a several course meal at their restaurant. The meal lasted about 3 hours. Of course, Thomas and I took several restroom breaks and other breaks as necessary, but the increased level of Thomas’s socialization skills allowed him to participate throughout the entire celebration! At the end of the evening, the Longwood Gardens staff brought out a beautiful birthday cake for my mother to blow out the candles and everyone in the restaurant sang “Happy Birthday” and applauded. Yes, the applause was certainly for my mother’s birthday, but it was also very evidently for the efforts of the restaurant and my family, because everyone in the restaurant could see that Thomas was included in the celebration as well. You will understand the impact that such an event-that of having all of her grandchildren in her presence for her 90th birthday-had on my mother.
And so, we get to the heart of the matter: the inclusion of individuals with disabilities and their families into the mainstream of society. I have often thought, when talking with other parents at Pegasus during the riding sessions, that this is just like what other parents do, but perhaps with a unique twist. That is, maybe other parents take their children to the community field to play soccer-and perhaps the particular activity of playing soccer is not within Thomas’s grasp, at least not at this time. But that particular inability doesn’t really matter at all, because there is a place like Pegasus where I can take Thomas to participate in a different, but entirely appropriate activity-therapeutic horseback riding-and I, too, can meet, socialize, and exchange ideas with other parents. What I have learned as a parent of a severely disabled child is that everything is totally fine, things are completely okay, as long as we maintain our participation in all of the various aspects of life, even if we sometimes have to do this participation in somewhat different ways.
So I simply wanted to thank you and your wonderful staff at Pegasus, both your employees and your incredible volunteers, and of course, the horse, for all of your efforts on behalf of disabled individuals and their families. Again, for me, this business is a very personal thing, as I have these tremendous feelings of gratitude to those who are able and willing to help my son Thomas make progress.