Expressive language is how we share our thoughts, feelings, and ideas with others. This can be spoken, signed, or communicated with an augmentative and alternative communication (AAC) device. Expressive language is one of the nine domains that speech-language pathologists treat.
An expressive language impairment can be developmental or acquired. The impairment can occur from birth, can be associated with another diagnosis, or can occur from an acquired injury such as a stroke. An expressive language impairment can present in many different ways, but it all comes back to a person having difficulty sharing their thoughts, feelings, and ideas.
There are standard, research-based approaches in how to treat expressive language disorders. ASHA.org (the American-Speech-Language-Hearing Association) has a number of ideas on how to identify, assess, and treat expressive language impairment. Some of the basic tenets of treatment are to facilitate communication and expand vocabulary. This is where the horse can become part of treatment.
Horses provide a wonderful way to teach communication. They pick up on emotion and intent so they can provide feedback to a client with or without verbalization. That can be a powerful first step in communication. Horses are also motivating. They are large, calm animals that are not typically part of someone’s daily life. It’s common for children (and adults) to be wowed by a horse and that can provide motivation to communicate.
For a young child (under 3), this motivation may look like a child pointing and the speech therapist saying “yes, horse. The horse says neigh, big horse.” The child might say (or approximate) neigh. “Yes, the horse says neigh. Do you want to touch it?” The child can then nod, shake head, verbalize, or use an AAC device to respond to a question.
For older children, expressive language might be working on deepening vocabulary which can include words with multiple meanings. For example, teaching an older child about the word “ride.” You can ride a bike, ride a horse, catch a ride, go for a ride, or be taken for a ride. The same word can be used in multiple contexts and having a concrete example (i.e., the horse) can provide additional input for the deepening vocabulary.
Teenagers and adults may benefit from having a horse because of the motivational aspect, the reduced pressure of intelligibility, and the uniqueness of therapy outside with an animal.
I started with expressive language because I think it is the easiest to understand and connect for people. Expressive language is how we communicate. Horses can help that communication simply by existing.
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