The Cariboo is home to many ranches, but one ranch is providing children who have autism with research-tested, clinical programs in an environment outside of standard practices, and which promotes learning while building self-awareness through interaction with the animals.
Krysta Stewart is the woman behind the in-home autism centre on Square One Ranch just outside 100 Mile House. Stewart runs two different programs at Blue Sky’s Autism Services. The first program is an intensive early-intervention program for children designed to prepare them for school when they enter at the age of six. Stewart works with the children to develop skills such as speech, self-regulation, listening to and following instructions, academics, and more.
“Being able to listen to something, process it and then do it are major skills we expect people to have and some don’t,” said Stewart.
The second program is for children over the age of six and focuses on building self-awareness: who you are and the type of person you want to be.
“There are certain traumas in these children’s lives that somehow have gotten them to the point that they are at,” said Stewart.”There is a reason a child isn’t successful in school. They aren’t just bad kids; there is stuff that has happened in their lives.”
Stewart grew up in a ranching family. When it was time to raise her own children, Stewart and her husband chose the alternative.
“Ranching is something that has always been a passion of my husband’s and I think he would have loved to have done it while raising our kids, but it did not work out that way,” she said. “So when our son Cody decided that ranching was what he wanted to do, it didn’t take much for us to support him. That is what brought us out here.”
Her son’s passion for ranching came as a shock to them. He was in school studying to become a marine biologist, and halfway through the program he decided he wanted a career in the ranching industry.
“He wants to raise his own family on a ranch, one day.”
The Stewarts have been living in the South Cariboo for three years now. The family previously owned a small five-acre hobby farm in the Okanagan, where Stewart merged her clinical practices into a new environment: ranching.
“It’s not to say standard practices don’t work, it works really well,” said Stewart. “I am doing all of that, but we incorporate it into real life.”
In a clinical setting, it can be challenging to accomplish all that is planned in a session or day. The ranch has made it easier for Stewart to build trust and form relationships with the children.
“I think it’s really special to be able to open up my home, my farm and my life to these children and give them a sense of belonging.”
Stewart is currently working with 14 children on the ranch, but not all are diagnosed with autism. From Monday to Thursday, Stewart’s day is spent working with the children. Each day varies in terms of sessions, time frames and how many children are there that day; some children can be there for up to six hours a day, twice a week.
“The beautiful thing about a ranch is you never know what is going to happen that day,” said Stewart. “You might have an idea but that can change. The flexibility that these children learn by showing up: even if they have an idea what might happen that day, it very well might not.”
According to Stewart, children on the spectrum tend to be rigid thinkers. It brings them comfort and security, making them feel like they are in control.
“It’s hard to fly by the seat of their pants and be flexible thinkers,” said Stewart. “We really have to teach them that, and that is a huge part of what I do.”
Blue Sky’s is giving these children an idea of what it is like to live on a ranch, which could be opposite to their lives at home. She said the program incorporates the children into the day-to-day components of living on a ranch.
“We are very big on self-regulation,” said Stewart. “They [the children] might not get what they want or things might not go there way, but with animals, the children naturally start learning that because you can’t force an animal to do something.
“I love this aspect, being able to have animals involved with the children,” added Stewart.
While we were visiting the ranch, Stewart was in the midst of a session with one of her clients, whose name was John. She explained that when he first started going there, John didn’t like following directions; he liked following his direction.
Some days involve activities and lessons inside, while others involve stuff out on the ranch. Stewart said the children will often help her husband or son tackles tasks that are happening that day.
“Those are the kinds of opportunities that you don’t get in a clinical setting or even a home setting,” said Stewart. “Just following a routine — organizing your day, your thoughts and knowing how you’re going to accomplish what you need to accomplish — is much easier to teach in an environment like this.”
Now, when John visits, they will go inside and make a plan for that day. It consists of activities and lessons Stewart may have for that session but also incorporates what John likes to do. That day, John was cleaning out the goat pen, which he helped build.
“We use every opportunity that we can as a teachable lesson,” said Stewart.
While some days are more challenging than others, every day is a valuable lesson on the ranch. Stewart and those behind Blue Sky’s Autism Services have merged two environments into one, giving children a unique opportunity to develop skills that will last a lifetime.
“Giving these children a safe space to learn is what I am most passionate about.”