Expert says: “People with autism enrich our society”
For some time now, Dynamic Source has been supporting KINDER STÄRKEN (“Strengthening children”) – a therapy centre in Austria that focuses primarily on providing animal-assisted therapy for children on the autism spectrum. Despite the sizeable obstacles in her way, founder Andrea Keglovits-Ackerer fights with heart and soul to ensure that every single child receives the support they need.
It all begins with the school system – Andrea Keglovits-Ackerer is convinced of that. Here, she feels, there is a fundamental need for change: “We need to promote individuality. And help schoolchildren to develop skills. These days, young people are leaving school with university entrance qualifications but have no idea how to take out an insurance policy, for instance. The practical side of education is falling by the wayside.” Andrea has first-hand experience here, as she works with families with children on the autism spectrum and with other cognitive issues.
Her life’s work
This is exactly what the Austrian speech therapist and special education teacher – who comes from Styria in the southeast of the country – sees as her life’s work. Even while she was still at school, she already knew she wanted to work with special people, a goal that she consistently pursued. After training in speech therapy and special education, she worked as a school-based therapist – and finally set up the association PFERDE STÄRKEN (“Horses strengthen”).
This organization initially specialized in horse-assisted therapy for children with autism spectrum disorder, says Andrea Keglovits-Ackerer. However, she soon realized that one single form of therapy on its own was not enough to help families meet their children’s special needs. This is why, five years ago, Andrea realized her dream of opening a multidisciplinary therapy centre: KINDER STÄRKEN, located in Gramatneusiedl, Lower Austria, to the south of Vienna. Since then, it has been run on a not-for-profit basis by the association PFERDE STÄRKEN.
“We are letting wonderful skills slip through our fingers because our school system is so narrow-minded in its outlook.”
Identifying strengths and developing skills
Animal-assisted therapy – including the dog-assisted section HUNDE STÄRKEN – is still a key part of the centre, where 16 independent therapists currently treat children and young people between the ages of three and 18. Andrea Keglovits-Ackerer is still the driving force behind it – and she plans to stay there for a long time: “When I was at school, I already knew I wanted to be a special needs teacher and that never changed. And autism is my main pedagogical focus. It’s amazing how people with autism enrich our society and our awareness.” Accordingly, there is no need for a “cure”, as is often suggested: “These are not people with disabilities – on the contrary, it is society and the school system that are holding them back.”
As she explains, working with autistic people is all about identifying strengths and learning to use them: “We are letting wonderful skills slip through our fingers because our school system is so narrow-minded in its outlook.” By contrast, KINDER STÄRKEN makes a point of developing these skills and strengths, in spite of all the difficulties that this throws up: “As we don’t work with health insurance providers and are not involved in sports or tourism, we are not eligible for funding.” The €8,000 that it costs to operate the association every month is financed via rent for the therapists’ spaces and through donations. Other funding comes from the therapy work carried out by Andrea Keglovits-Ackerer, who not only looks after the centre’s administration and bookkeeping, but is also active as an educator and therapist.
A very challenging time
“People often ask me where I get all my energy from,” says Andrea. “It comes from the little victories – when a child says their first sentence or even just makes eye contact. For example, I once worked for 18 months with a child before they looked me in the eye for the first time. Nothing you could buy could ever make me as happy as that.”
Needless to say, not everything has been plain sailing in her many years in this job: “The children are never the problem,” says Andrea Keglovits-Ackerer, who has two sons herself, “but there are parents with whom it’s impossible to find any common path. There are parents who become aggressive through sheer desperation, who are no longer able to listen.” But of all the 100-plus children that she has treated to date, she only ever had to stop working with two.
As Andrea relates, this is currently a very challenging time for everyone: “We are seeing that many families are in a psychological crisis. There is an underlying insecurity that was never there before.” This has been fuelled in particular by the recent cost-of-living crisis and the anxiety that this has wrought: “But parents will try to save money in any other area rather than depriving their children of therapy – for example, they’d sooner go without a holiday. I’d love it if families didn’t have to pay anything. Being in a position where no one has to worry about footing the bill.”
“Animals accept you regardless of whether you have red or black hair, even if you are overweight or hysterical. It’s contact without judgment. I experience the same thing with people on the autism spectrum. If they like you, they like you just the way you are.”
Contact without judgment
At the time of writing, one of the centre’s six therapy horses is about to retire to pasture, with two others set to follow suit in the foreseeable future. The cost of replacing them is an enormous financial challenge for the association. Why do they still focus on working with animals when it is so expensive? Andrea Keglovits-Ackerer: “Animals accept you regardless of whether you have red or black hair, even if you are overweight or hysterical. It’s contact without judgment. I experience the same thing with people on the autism spectrum. If they like you, they like you just the way you are. And if something bothers them, they will say so in no uncertain terms. And when they are interacting with animals, children don’t realize that they are working on a weakness or cultivating a strength.”
Horses are flight animals. They make decisions in a matter of seconds and every action triggers a prompt reaction. “A horse has a very clear body language – it’s very easy to read. As well as this, riding horses allows children to experience steady movements that also stimulate their brain. This calms them down physically and mentally and makes them more attentive.” Children can also play and interact with dogs as part of therapy. As Andrea explains: “Dogs actively try to get the children to interact with them, which calls for a different kind of work.”
There is no doubt that Andrea Keglovits-Ackerer will continue doing the work she loves. Her passion for it is still very much alive and she never sits still: “I am someone who is always evaluating things – and evaluating myself and seeing what I can do better.” And she is someone whose work is not only extremely valuable but rewarding as well. She says herself: “People with autism are great people.”
You can read all about KINDER STÄRKEN, PFERDE STÄRKEN and HUNDE STÄRKEN and ways to provide financial support here.