YORKTOWN — When Dr. Megan McGavern’s son Cole was diagnosed with an Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) at the age of four, she wanted to learn everything she could about it.
Cole was in speech therapy, occupational therapy, Applied Behavioral Analysis (ABA) and special education in public school for several years.
“Things weren’t getting better,” McGavern said. “We still do occupational and speech therapy, but there was no major improvement with ABA, and, oftentimes, it would upset him more than it helped anything.”
Cole was having a difficult time in school as well.
“He could not communicate what was happening, he was upset all the time, I was getting phone calls all the time,” McGavern said.
McGavern began reading up on how she could help her son. It was when she read the book, “The Horse Boy,” by Rupert Isaacson in 2017, that everything changed.
In the book, Isaacson chronicled his journey with his son Rowan, who was diagnosed with an ASD, and how contact with horses helped him.
Isaacson created the Horse Boy Method and Movement Method as a therapeutic and academic approach to target neuro-psychiatric conditions, such as an ASD, through nature, movement and following a child’s interests.
After getting in contact with Isaacson and visiting his place in Austin, Texas with Cole, McGavern’s life changed.
McGavern took Cole out of public school and created a homeschooling Movement Method program in 2017 and a Horse Boy Method program in 2018.
As a full-time physician and also a mother of twins, this was not easy for McGavern.
“It was just so much,” she said. “I didn’t know how I was going to do any of this, but you just sort of go with your gut and your mother instinct.”
After seeing the dramatic changes in Cole, McGavern and her husband bought 18 acres of land in Yorktown in 2019.
In 2020, they transitioned to the land, which they have since completely transformed into a horse therapy station, complete with an obstacle course, tree house, swings, 30-40 trails and three horses.
Now almost 11 years old, Cole spends much of his time learning at Cole’s Horse Autism Therapy Station, or CHATS
McGavern has since seen night and day changes with her son.
“He went from maybe saying 10 words in a day, to 300 to 400 words in an hour on the horse,” she said. “He couldn’t ride a bike. He couldn’t ride a scooter. After doing all this stuff with the horse, he’s been riding a bike and a scooter for over a year.”
Before Horse Boy Method, Cole was being driven to a feeding clinic in Richmond. Now, he is above the 90th percentile in weight, McGavern said.
“There’s certain movements on the horse that will produce oxytocin, which is your feel-good hormone,” McGavern explained. “When that’s released by the different movements on the horse, it creates a stress-reliever. It opens the brain to be able to let information in and be able to communicate.”
Now McGavern makes the method available to other families in the area.
CHATS offers sensory events and activities to families with children with an ASD, including group play dates, private play dates and holiday-themed Sensory Saturdays.
The Sensory Saturdays are holiday-themed to make it easier for families with children with an ASD who may find some holiday traditions difficult to handle, such as standing in line for Santa, Easter egg hunts or Trick-or-Treating,
“The environments that are set up for these holidays are not really conducive to a child with Autism,” she said. “So I make it so these kids can experience holidays. I find that so important.”
McGavern said that the changes she has seen with the other children are exactly what she has seen with Cole. It’s all due to what she calls a “yes” environment.
“You’re setting them up for success,” she said. “I had to change everything. I have him outside for a good six hours every day.”
McGavern said that the horses have helped with coordination, communication, as well as a decease in tantrums and meltdowns.
McGavern continues to connect with the community through the organization, which received its 501c3 status in September.
On April 30, CHATS will host its first charity gala on the property, 100 Old Pond Rd. The event will feature live music, food and an auction, with all donations going toward CHATS programs, horse care and land maintenance.
McGavern’s favorite part of the journey?
“Seeing my son being able to learn, seeing my son being happy, and being able to have hope that one day he’ll be independent,” she said.
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