Every Friday morning in the small Queensland town of Gin Gin, a group of students with special needs are learning how to train and handle alpacas at the local high school.

It is a unique animal-assisted therapy program unlike any other in Australia.

“We’re trying to create an opportunity for these students to overcome some inhibitions or difficulties they might have so they can go into the mainstream, and work happily in the mainstream classes,” said Special Education teacher Graham Maskiell.

The weekly program is being delivered to year 7, 8 and 9 students who have varying special needs, from Autism Spectrum Disorder through to Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder.

Alpaca breeder Fiona Laughton, who is also the president of the Australian Alpaca Association in Queensland, instructs the students each week in handling the animals.

The students work primarily with young animals that have only had basic halter training, teaching them to navigate a specially-designed obstacle course.

Ms Laughton said the handling program was a great confidence-building exercise for both the students and the alpacas.

Seeing results

Mr Maskiell said the program to date was working.

“Three students from last year are now working at a year 8 and 9 level without assistance,” he said.

While the program is still in its early stages, having been introduced only in 2017, Mr Maskiell said they were already seeing improvements in student behaviour and learning.

School records indicate a dramatic decrease in negative behaviour and conversations with parents have also revealed that students are generally less anxious about daily school attendance.

“We’re seeing better eye contact, which is a a precursor to more communication and being social,” Mr Maskiell said.

– Trudie Leigo

Read more: Alpaca Therapy at Queensland School Tackles Special Students’ Anxiety

Image by Fernando from Unsplash