Life can be hard enough for a young boy journeying towards being a teenager but being diagnosed with autism can be especially difficult. Mahkai was diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome, an aspect of autism that means he finds socialising and following instructions difficult. Things grew harder for Mahkai and mom Marlica when they realised that his school was not able to support Mahkai’s emotional needs – reluctantly Marlica withdrew her son from school, hoping to find ways to build Mahkai’s self-esteem and tackle his increasing withdrawal from social situations.
Mahkai had always been calm and caring around animals, showing an interest and love for other living creatures. Marlica contacted The Donkey Sanctuary, searching for somewhere that could help develop Mahkai’s skills with animals and a place that could provide emotional and psychological support. Marlica remembers her initial visit to the Sanctuary in Sutton Coldfield: “I remember he screamed in the car all the way to the Sanctuary saying he didn’t want to go. Mahkai was very quiet and kept his head down, he was very anxious.” The initial reaction looked as though this would be another social situation that was beyond Mahkai’s ability to cope with, another negative of Asperger’s Syndrome.
However, as the weeks went by, Mahkai grew more confident when interacting with the donkeys. He stroked them, learnt their names and groomed them each week. From here he started to work with staff and volunteers, helping to care for the donkeys and carry out routine tasks. Mahkai helped poo pick the fields; put down the donkeys' beds in their stables and scrubbed the donkeys’ water troughs out. He has walked the donkeys around the yard, watched the dentist care for their teeth and listened to a donkey’s heart beat with the vet. “Not only has he enjoyed doing all of these things”, says Marlica “he has also learnt why these jobs need to be done. This information has led to Mahkhai wanting to work with animals when he is older.”
Mahkai has certainly proved himself to be a natural around animals. Not only have his weekly visits allowed him to build self-esteem, they have also help him socialise with adults, listen and follow instructions and even take information home with him, such as weighing hay nets, to develop his English and maths skills. Mahkai says “I love making up the straw beds and being with the donkeys. The donkey Sanctuary makes learning fun.”
The staff have loved watching Mahkai develop and blossom as he interacts with the donkeys here at Birmingham Donkey Sanctuary. Meeting the emotional needs of those who have additional needs through interaction continues to be a core value of the Donkey Assisted Therapy work of the Sanctuary, and it is through stories like Mahkai’s that the magic of the donkey comes to life.