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“We believe that horses make us better people.”
Yusif Azam, 4, doesn’t want to put on a
warm jacket. He is a beautiful child with
thick straight hair and enormous eyes.
But his eyes look wary. Yusif, his parents
say, has been diagnosed as being on the
spectrum for autism.
“It’s going to be chilly in the arena,”
his father, Dr. Mohammed Ashfaq “Ashi”
Azam, a psychiatrist, says cajolingly.
“No,” the boy repeats.
No is a word that’s heard a lot, Yusif’s
dad says good-naturedly.
“Do you like ice cream?” he asks his
Point made, Azam, 38, chuckles as he
expertly wrangles his son into a warm
jacket. ;ere is much to be happy about
these days. A few minutes later, when it
is time to put on Yusif’s riding helmet
for today’s session at Great and Small,
the boy doesn’t just smile—for a fleeting
moment he beams.
Over the next 30 minutes he circles
the arena atop a horse named Pork Chop
and chats shyly with the speech thera-
pist who walks alongside him. ;e ther-
apist makes learning feel like playing a
game. She hangs a bright blue rubber
ring around Pork Chop’s left ear. The
horse isn’t fazed.
“Where is the blue ring?” the therapist asks Yusif. ;e child points at Pork
Chop’s left ear.
“Use your words to tell me where the
ring is,” the therapist prods gently.
“On his ear,” Yusif whispers.
“;at’s right! ;e blue ring is on Pork
Chop’s ear. Is that silly?”
Yusif nods. “Yes,” he says.
As Yusif and Pork Chop amble around
the arena, the therapist holds up flash
cards with colorful pictures. She asks
Yusif questions designed to help him use
verbs in complete sentences.
“What is this girl doing?” the speech
therapist asks. “She is drinking milk,”
Last summer, when Yusif was 3½, he
was still largely nonverbal. Azam, who
is based in Silver Spring, and his ex-wife, Karen Kane, 41, of Olney, spent
time and money taking their son to traditional o;ce-based speech and occupational therapy. ;ey didn’t see much
progress. Finding recreational activities
to help their son build confidence and
social skills was a challenge.