The Donkey Sanctuary has recently trialed and introduced a new heuristic programme, which in essence sees the vulnerable children and adults who attend spending quality time interacting and engaging with the donkeys on the same level.
This heuristic approach is seeing children and adults learn and develop through experiencing and discovering things about the donkeys and themselves through hands-on interaction.
Donna Alderson has written about the impact this had on her son Alexander and his experience at The Donkey Sanctuary in Leeds:
"My son Alexander has autism. He was diagnosed at 3½ years old, when I was told that he probably wouldn't achieve much. To say I was devastated was an understatement, but like plenty of other parents of children with additional needs I refused to give up. Alexander didn't speak until he was nearly five, or really interact with others at all, but he was happy and content in his own little world.
"Alexander first started coming to the centre in 2005, visiting every Tuesday with his school. When he first attended he would not even go in the arena, as strange places used to really freak him out. But when he was finally persuaded to go in and see the donkeys his world changed for the better. The donkeys didn't care if he could speak or not, they just wanted to be fussed and to be loved - just like he did. He didn't have to ‘fit in’, he could just be himself.
"At the sanctuary he learnt so many lessons that have enriched his life; he learnt to take turns and follow instructions. But the biggest lesson he learnt was how to ‘join in’ and interact with others. This is something most autistic children find extremely hard, and as Alexander had very little speech he didn't know how to join in or to interact appropriately. With the donkeys he felt relaxed, he could interact with them in his own way and they loved him and he loved them. Alexander showed great improvement in concentration at school.
"The time Alexander spent at the sanctuary not only enriched his life but also his family’s, and he was more than a little sad when he was too old to go with his school. His love for the donkeys - especially William D - is still with him today. Alexander has achieved far more than he was ever expected to, thanks to the early lessons he learnt at the Leeds sanctuary all those years ago. He has three GCSEs including a grade B in Art. He's also a proud scout. We went to Switzerland in 2014 and slept in a mountain hut and tubed down the River Aare from Utigen to Berne. He has a Bronze Duke of Edinburgh award.
"Alexander turned 21 in 2016. He has come so far from the frightened little boy who came to the sanctuary all those years ago. He is living proof that supporting a great cause such as The Donkey Sanctuary does make a difference to a person's life.
"Thank you to all the staff, volunteers and especially the donkeys for believing in my son and helping him become the person he is today. He has come a long way from being a child programme participant to an adult helper, who loves to be around the donkeys - especially with his Pops who began as a volunteer to pay back all the support the sanctuary gave his grandson all those years ago and who now works alongside the team at The Donkey Sanctuary in Leeds.
"Thank you from the bottom of our hearts, Donna & Alexander."