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By Sandra Nissen
Michael Torrens and Belle.
By Sandra Nissen
By Sandra Nissen
Back in 1993, Sheri A. Marino-Haiken, MA, CCC-SLP was working as a speech pathologist with a 3-year-old autistic boy named Russell, when his mother noticed something amazing at a birthday party. Russell became more attentive and engaging when he was on a pony ride.
With this knowledge, Haiken set out to find a riding center where she could bring Russell for his therapy. This kind of treatment is called Hippotherapy and helps autistic children develop social, language and motor skills. For more than twenty years, Haiken as been a forerunner treating children with autism in the U.S. and internationally.
“I’m not quite sure where my passion comes from,” Haiken smiles. “Maybe it started when I was a young girl in grammar school. I remember we had a boy transfer in who had muscular dystrophy. Most kids were intimidated by his wheelchair. I was determined to help him get around and make friends. I guess I have always been like that. But I have a passion for and love what I do. I always have, I always will.”
RHR is a pediatric rehabilitation and family wellness center specializing in alternative therapies for children with special needs and their families. Haiken and her experienced and compassionate staff proudly offers a comprehensive array of therapeutic services, including speech, physical and occupational therapy, Hippotherapy, equine mental health programs, therapeutic riding, aquatic therapy, music therapy, therapeutic yoga and therapeutic martial arts.
A variety of medical and psychiatric conditions are treated at RHR, including autism, cerebral palsy, developmental and congenital disorders, traumatic brain injuries, emotional and behavioral disorders, brain tumors and spinal muscular atrophy.
However, with Haiken leading the way, RHR has become renowned for their Equine Assisted Therapy programs.
Haiken was the first speech pathologist in New Jersey and the second in the country to practice Hippotherapy. Hippotherapy is an intensive one-on-one therapy session with a physical, occupational, or speech therapist utilizing the movement of the horse as a treatment strategy. It does not teach riding skills. The three dimensional movement of the horse helps stimulate the arousal mechanism of the central nervous system effecting the patients motor skills, sensory integration and attending skills. Speech and language skills are addressed through improvements in trunk stability, enhanced respiratory function and motor planning.
Haiken explains, “As therapists, we are trained to use the biomechanics of the horses movement to improve postural stability, muscle tone, core strength and sensory processing. It’s a strategy that treats the whole child, integrating all systems. For a non-ambulatory child, this 3 dimensional movement accesses the muscles of the pelvis and trunk that are at risk of atrophy from being in a wheelchair. Emotionally, for the child, the horse gives them a sense of freedom as it can take them beyond the limits of their wheelchair.”
Equine facilitated mental health programs at RHR are lead by Kathy Lutz, LCSW. Lutz wrote the book “Horsemanship and Humanship: How Horses Make us Better People” which teaches social skills through groundwork with horses. It is common for children with Asperger’s to have difficulty forming relationships with their peers because of a lack of social awareness and ability to understand social rules. “Horses are a mirror of our soul. If we show up anxious or agitated, the horse will react the same way. We use the horse’s reactions as a form of biofeedback to teach children how to be in touch with their own feelings. When we move too quickly or speak too loudly they react showing the whites of their eyes and pinning back their ears. We can teach children with Asperger’s how to read body language, first using the horse, and then generalizing with a peer. Horses are beautiful teaching tool because they have a forgiving heart ” said Haiken.
Ask any of the staff at RHR and they will all tell you they have witnessed many miracles happen over the years. “The greatest moments are when a child takes his first steps or says his first words at Rocking Horse Rehab. It is an emotional experience for the families and the therapists involved.” Haiken said. Unfortunately, they have had their share of sad moments too. Working with medically fragile children has exposed the staff to great loss when a young patient loses their fight with a terminal illness. “It’s a feeling you cannot even put into words. The grief is unimaginable. But the families tell us that their childs’ happiest moments were with us, with their ponies. That’s what keeps you going. I know those little angels up there have a hand in the miracles we see” said Haiken.
Haiken prides herself on being entrenched in the community. Currently she is leading a wellness program titled Peace-Love-Ponies, for families who have lost their homes and loves ones in Hurricane Sandy.
Haiken and RHR are proud to be a part of the community it serves. The enterprising, 2,000-square foot facility is affiliated with 20 universities across the nation, which provides RHR yearly with some of the brightest interns studying speech, occupational and physical therapy, social work and family studies. RHR works with children at local schools with special needs and works with all kinds of insurance.
More recently, Haiken has become the executive director of the prestigious Autism Think Tank and Medical Center in Warren, N.J. The Center is an innovative outpatient medical center designed to provide a multidisciplinary team approach to the identification and treatment of the complicated medical co-morbidities of autism.
At the Autism Think Tank, world-renowned medical experts collaborate via videoconference to assess medically complex children and adults with autism. “It is a privilege to work with a team of doctors who understand that the complexity of autism needs to be addressed through a collaborative approach. A synergistic plan of care which medically stabilizes a child ensures greater educational and therapeutic outcomes” said Haiken. Comprehensive family services including diagnostics, rehabilitative medicine, integrative medicine and comprehensive case management are offered at the Autism Medical Center through the Autism Think Tank and Bright Star Therapy.
Haiken has worked with thousands of patients and families during her illustrious career. And, of course, she will never forget any of these special people. Especially Russell, the boy she treated nearly two decades ago. Just recently, he was admitted to college in Colorado, with Haiken by his side.
“Aside from having my own children, it was one of the most exciting moments of my life,” said Haiken. “It’s the greatest feeling to see a patient thrive. My career has come full circle and I’m just grateful to still be a part of Russell’s and all of my patients’ lives.”
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