Animal magic: How a farm is helping autistic children

Autistic children have difficulty relating to people. But put them in a field and give them some space and they’ll flourish, says Clare Hargreaves, who takes a look at an unusual rural experiment in Oxfordshire

At Pennyhooks farm, in Oxfordshire’s Vale of the White Horse, David Halliday helps his mate, John Kneafsey, shift hay from the barn to a row of mangers for the cows to munch on. There is a mutual understanding between beasts and boys. Sometimes, David sits at the end of the manger so he can feel the warmth of the cows’ breath on the back of his neck.

An ordinary day on an ordinary farm, you’d think. But, in fact, David, 21, and John, 19, have severe autism. Both struggle to speak and relate to other human beings. Normally, people like them would be closeted in supported living accommodation with full-time care. But, thanks to Pennyhooks’ owner, Lydia Otter, John, David and other youngsters with Autism Spectrum Disorder are getting the chance to use their work on the farm to learn useable skills. Look more closely at John and David and you’ll notice that the hay bales have been placed a good distance from the manger so the boys have further to walk. That’s to aid their flow of movement, which can get stuck.

As well as being a farmer’s daughter, Lydia is a special needs teacher, who has worked with autism for 20 years. In 2001 she set up the Pennyhooks Farm Project with Richard Hurford, a former Probation Service Officer, who now manages the 100-acre organic beef farm that has been in Lydia’s family for more than 50 years. Between them, they secured funding from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) and various charities to construct a purpose-built centre for the students.

“We saw the difficulties that autistic people face, such as social interaction and heightened senses,” says Otter. “Then we thought about the farm, its animals and the amount of space, and realised it needed people to work it. It made sense to match the two up.” Students were referred by care managers and teachers, and she persuaded local social services to fund the students and their carers to come to the farm for anything from one to five days a week. In time, Lydia would like to see students being funded by central government, in the same way as students who go to college or get day care.

Some might see the project as a return to the idea of hospitals and institutions with farms, a concept that was rejected a few decades ago on the grounds that it amounted to segregation. But Otter is uncomfortable with the idea that people with severe autism should lead “normal” lives in the community. “They’re expected to deal with things like buses and roads,” she says. “But for our lads, that’s like being asked to swim the Atlantic. It makes them very anxious. A farm, on the other hand, is the ideal environment, with its predictable seasons and daily tasks. Being in touch with the farm’s daily rhythms gives them security and reassurance. Their anxiety lessens and they can start to function.”

That’s certainly proved the case with John. “When he first came here he could have dangerous outbursts,” says his carer, Judy Holdsworth. “If distressed, he would bite, hit, scratch. He was extremely withdrawn. He just stayed in the bus and his teacher, Neil, sat with him – he got through an awful lot of newspapers. After six months, John got into a wheelbarrow. Then one day we wheeled him a few yards and gently tipped him out onto the straw. It was about a year before he started working. When he saw that we weren’t forcing him to do anything, he flourished.”

Like most people with autism, John’s inner life was tyrannised by lists, maps and rigid routines. “When he began work at Pennyhooks he had a map of the farm and he’d plan his route exactly. Nothing could be changed,” Judy recalls. “Then, after about a year, one of the cows had a calf and was right in our path, so John had to make a slight detour around them. That gave him confidence. Because he’s less anxious, he’s now able to be more flexible. He’s got a life. He doesn’t take the map with him any more.”

As I watch, John and his companions move on to other jobs, such as giving water to the pigs, and mucking out the donkey stable. It’s clear that the youngsters are contented and working as a team – something often considered impossible for people with autism. “They learn the benefit of working with others through fun tasks like moving a bale of straw out to the yard – one person can’t do it on their own,” says Lydia. “So they get a positive experience of needing others. It would be hard to duplicate that anywhere other than on a farm.”

Lydia hopes Pennyhooks will give the students a sense of self-fulfilment, but also help to make some of them employable. The gentle tasks that John and his 20 fellow students carry out are evaluated by external assessors and will, over four years, lead to a qualification in Countryside Stewardship accredited by the Open College Network. Some of Pennyhooks’ female students, like Stephie and Sam, who suffer from Asperger’s, have gone on to take NVQs in animal care.

The group stops for a jelly baby and a cup of orange squash in the beautiful water meadows by Pennyhooks Brook. We keep our eyes open for water voles that have recently returned here; part of the meadows has been declared a County Wildlife Site because of its rare flora and fauna, and conservation is part of the students’ course. Stephie and Sam hunt for four-leaved clovers that they stick onto cards to sell in the farm’s shop.

It’s a happy but rare sight. Pennyhooks is the only farm in Britain running a day project for autistic people, although other farms belonging to the National Care Farming Initiative (of which Otter is founder) have been used therapeutically to help a range of groups including drug addicts and offenders. Otter would like to see more farms taking on autistic students, but says funding is the chief obstacle.

She is justly proud of what’s been achieved at Pennyhooks. “These young people wouldn’t have been deemed capable of what they are doing here,” she says. “We have shown that with the right support, they can achieve their potential and flourish. Here, rather than being the needers, they’re taking responsibility for animals that need them. Instead of being dis-abled, they are en-abled. That’s freedom.”