Angels in Autism: Healing the Hearts of Humans and Horses
Story by Bonnie Craig | Picture by Michelle Mastrangelo
The partnership between humans and horses is something we often take for granted today, although this ideally symbiotic relationship has existed for over five thousand years. From the beginning, there has been a certain mutual giving between us that has made the human-horse connection unique and beautiful. They are dependent on us for care and sustenance, but what they give us in return goes far beyond labor and transportation; it includes an almost preternatural ability to understand us and intuitively adjust to our individual needs.
Angels in Autism LLC works in conjunction with partnering programs Arizona Behavior and Autism LLC and Equine Therapy Arizona Inc. (Horses with Wings). The organization utilizes the human-horse bond in order to help people with various disabilities. The facility staff seeks to aid clients in areas such as: impulse control, stress, interpersonal relationships, independence, and much more. They are changing lives, one human and one horse at a time.
Executive Director Michelle Mastrangelo, a horse owner since 1979, was aware of this amazing healing bond between horses and people for many years before she founded Angels in Autism. It was a combination of things that led up to its inception. Mastrangelo has worked with autistic children since 1979. After working for school districts for some time, she earned an international certificate as a Board Certified Behavior Analyst (BCBA). Then, using her valid Arizona BCBA license, she began to work as freelance therapist, helping clients in their homes as well as her own. She eventually incorporated horses into her work.
Angels in Autism is currently working toward 501(c)(3) status to become a nonprofit organization. In the meantime, their funding comes almost completely through the clients’ insurance. Clients receive Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) therapy, which incorporates horses as a part of a comprehensive program. While the majority of clients are on the autism spectrum, the program also assists with a wide variety of other conditions such as learning differences, substance abuse, depression, and trauma. The organization serves a broad client age range as well, starting at the age of a year and a half and going into adulthood. There is no age cap for their services. All of these things make Angels in Autism accessible across demographic lines, so that the positive change it affects can be unconditional.
The resident horses of Angels in Autism exude a calmness that is infectious. All eleven of them come from some sort of rescue situation themselves, and in something that seems like gratitude and understanding, they return the favor. They are cared for by a team of twenty-five interns, many of them from the University of Arizona. Volunteer coordinator Amanda Lewis began work at the facility as an intern from the University’s Health and Society program; she was hired on after graduation. She explained that the diversity of needs and duties at the facility enables Angels in Autism to accept student-interns from many different University programs. Past interns have been studying everything from Agricultural Science to Social Work.
The wide variety of volunteer talents brought to the program allows it to continue working like a well-oiled machine. The horses are on a rotation between areas so they each get an equal amount of freedom, exercise, shade, and attention, as well as taking their turns helping the clients. Depending on their abilities, clients can interact with the horses in a variety of ways. Some interact with horses from the ground, while others ride. When riding, most clients are led on the horses by staff or volunteers in a large arena area. Depending on skill and experience level however, some clients do control their own reigns. Regardless of the type of interaction, there is that magical something about horses, which creates a healing space and energy for everyone regardless of ability.
Angels in Autism and its partner organizations are looking toward the future, and they continue to grow and improve their programs. In addition to their current programs, they are hoping to begin a veteran’s program in the near future. This program would be offered to veterans free of charge. Currently there are rider spots open, and prospective new clients are encouraged to apply.
Volunteers are invaluable when it comes to keeping things running smoothly at the facility, and they are always in need of more. Although Angels in Autism has not yet finished attaining nonprofit status and donations are not yet tax deductible, they need them nonetheless. Monetary donations are gratefully accepted; they are also seeking: materials for a hay barn they hope to build, shade cloth, hay, Nutrena brand senior horse feed, MSM, and Horseshine supplements. To become a client, to volunteer, or to donate, go to www.angelsinautism.com, find them on Facebook, or call (520) 820-3650.