A teenager with autism who was struggling with pressures surrounding her GCSE exams has found support among the four-legged residents of The Donkey Sanctuary in Leeds. Clara Bowers, 15, from Halifax was feeling overwhelmed and having difficulty concentrating at school, and her mother was looking for ways to help reduce her stress levels.

Ana searched for organisations with animals who may be able to help her daughter and discovered the Donkey Assisted Activities programmes offered by The Donkey Sanctuary Leeds. After being referred, Clara attended a taster session at the centre in Eccup. During this visit, Ana couldn’t believe her daughter’s reaction to being among the resident donkeys for the first time, and said she’d not seen her daughter smile like this in a long time.

“I find it difficult to read human facial emotions and feel that I connect better with animals, as they listen unconditionally,” Clara said.

Samantha Butcher. Equine Coach at the Leeds sanctuary, facilitates and delivers donkey-assisted activities at the centre.

“Clara came to us looking for ways to stay calm and present in the moment, to practice some mindfulness techniques, create positive memories and deal with the day-to-day pressures of school life she was feeling,” said Samantha.

“To begin with she was very quiet, and didn’t make eye contact, but she soon began to develop a real bond with the donkeys, and we could see her light up whenever she was around them.”

Staff at the sanctuary work with lots of clients, but it was rare to see the donkeys behave in the way they did around Clara. They noticed a special connection between her and the donkeys. When she arrived at the centre for her session, the donkeys were naturally drawn to her and would each gently nudge her with their soft muzzles.

Samantha recalled a particular moment during a session with a 15-year-old donkey called Harry, who originally came into the sanctuary along with six other donkeys, after being abandoned at the roadside in Ireland.

“Harry chose to lay down next to Clara in the sand arena while she was taking part in a mindfulness session – time seemed to stand still,” she said. “The smile on Clara’s face when Harry came to support her was so powerful. Clara’s mum was stood watching the session and I remember she had tears of happiness in her eyes. That moment will be something I will always remember, and I believe they will too.”

Every week Samantha and her colleagues have seen Clara develop in confidence both with them, and with the donkeys. Her mood has been boosted and they have received positive feedback from her school.

Clara has been able to use some of the techniques she has learnt at the sanctuary to help calm herself in difficult situations. She has also been able to regulate herself during stressful situations at school, whereas previously she found it difficult to communicate how she was feeling. Her teacher also noticed a significant change in her ability to self-regulate and handle challenging situations that may arise, making a positive impact on her education.

Following her exams, Clara plans to go to college where she hopes to study animal care. She has wanted to work with animals for years, but thanks to her experience with the donkeys she has now been inspired to help rehome animals and give them a better life after seeing how the sanctuary helps the donkeys.

“Clara’s bond with the donkeys has been a happy emotional journey, and the programme has been a huge benefit to her mental wellbeing,” Clara’s mum, Ana, said.

“Clara instantly felt comfortable in the presence of the donkeys, and they soon gravitated towards her. It was a very emotional experience as a parent of a child with autism, but it was obvious from her very first session how comfortable she was.”

Clara and Ana are determined to continue to raise awareness of autism and have had support from The National Autistic Society based in Calderdale. Clara is also learning British Sign Language as she believes it can benefit people with autism to communicate in a different way, if they are having difficulties expressing themselves.

Samantha has also learned from her experience working with Clara.

“She has been such a pleasure to work with and I could see from early on the differences the donkeys were making to her life,” Samantha added. “Clara also showed me the world through her eyes and has inspired me to learn more about autism and neurodiversity as a whole.”

All images by The Donkey Sanctuary 

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