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Ponies, Payoffs and Velcro: Autism Therapy on a Shoestring Budget

Courtesy of Glen Finland

The therapist picked up my droopy baby boy and plopped him into a mesh swing hanging from the ceiling. I was reluctant to let him go. “Step back,” she insisted, “he’ll be all right on his own.” Then she wound up the swing and released it, free-spinning him inside. As his world spun by I watched his eyes open with a first-ever hint of interest. “Look,” the therapist told me, “he likes it.” At $125 a visit, I nodded politely, thinking, one of us is crazy here.

Yet this was no joke. In today’s economy autism can cost a family over $50,000 every year. But back in the early 1990s, for kids diagnosed on the spectrum along with PDD-NOS, cognitive behavioral therapy was considered experimental. Health insurance companies weren’t convinced. So in 1992, when the cut-off notice from our insurance company arrived, we had to think outside the box.

We kept 3-year old David at home and let his big brothers play airplane with him for free. One at a time they raced from kitchen to living room holding their baby brother over their heads, breathless and impatient for the occasional giggle or wide eyes from him.

At age six, during his low muscle-tone years, we took turns bouncing him around on a sleepy Shetland pony at a friend’s barn. David would come home from those afternoons happy, dusty, and all tuckered out. Maybe it helped him sit up a little straighter, maybe not, but the fresh air was good for everybody.

Fine motor skills took a little more resourcefulness. Once Velcro ceases to be cool, a 10-year old boy grows desperate to master tying his own shoes. After years of trying and failing to teach him how to pull, loop, and knot the laces—and in what order—we gave in. But not up. We called a meeting of the nine kids on our quiet cul-de-sac. This motley crew considered David a sort of mascot for their regular afternoon shenanigans.

“OK! The first one to teach David to tie his shoes gets five bucks. Go!”

A week later, redheaded-Chris from next door had a crisp fiver in his pocket and David was sporting a new pair of lace-ups.  By spring he could run like a deer.

Perhaps David’s first therapist had also been a psychic. “Step back,” she’d insisted, “he’ll be all right on his own.”

By Glen Finland, mom of David, 21, and author of Next Stop: An Autistic Son Grows Up