Thai Army helping autistic children through buffalo therapy


Soldiers are known for being tough, but Thai soldiers can also be tender, as demonstrated by a Thai Army unit in Lopburi province where men in uniform are helping dozens of autistic children through riding and interacting with water buffalos in a locally adapted version of “equine therapy, ” a form of therapy global medical researchers claim has positive effects on the troubled youngsters.

“We see children change from being emotionless and tense to having smiles and laughter on their faces,” General Kajornsak Jonpeng told the Daily Mail newspaper. “It’s a magical moment to see the thrill, adrenaline and joy on their faces.”

The Thai program is believed to be the first in the world involving water buffalos. Word of the program has spread and some of the children attending and receiving care and support from the Thai Army have come from neighboring Myanmar and Cambodia. Equine therapy has an established track record of helping people with autism, according to the United States-based Autism Specter Disorder Foundation.

“It is an excellent therapy for addressing key symptoms affiliated with autism: communication and social skills, lowered sensory skills, motor skills, and response to verbal cues and external stimuli. When you ride, you develop a bond with your horse and they become familiarized with your movements, attitudes and emotions, which make them extremely effective in bonding with an autistic child and encouraging communication and interaction,” the Foundation says on its website.

The children are given art and music classes on the Army base before having contact with the water buffalos. Soldiers supervise and lead the children as they mount and ride the animals around the rustic military base. General Kajornsak said many people are afraid of buffalos because they are powerful animals that can at times be volatile. The autistic children, however, have shown no fear of them, and some are in fact attracted to them.

“They become friends, and like the contact. Parents say they have never seen this before with their sons or daughters,” the general said.

The program began when one soldier had rescued some buffalos destined for slaughter and was searching for a productive use for them. After coming in contact with an autistic child and reading about equine and dolphin therapy he thought he would try the idea with the buffalos.

From a handful of children, the program now handles dozens and brings joy to the soldiers involved as well as the children and their families.

In Thai slang, the term ‘water buffalo’ is often used in a mean way to symbolize something or someone considered stupid. The soldiers of Lopburi, however, are using water buffalo in a new and brilliant way that symbolizes hope, caring and kindness. It is a uniquely Thai approach to a human problem.