Dr. Rebecca Evanko petting a horse

April is Autism Awareness Month! And as an Autistic woman I wanted to learn about opportunities and resources for Autistic people in New Mexico. So I asked Executive Director Dr. Rebecca Evanko to tell me about Wilderwood Equine Therapy and Rescue.

Wilderwood, a non-profit about 20 miles south of Albuquerque, offering curriculum-based, equine-assisted programs for Autistic adults and children, was founded in 2018 by Dr. Rebecca Evanko, an Autistic woman, and her husband Dr. Mark Evanko. Horsewoman, business owner and writer Dr. Rebecca Evanko has also served as a university faculty member and as an academic dean. She holds an M.A., a Ph.D and is currently studying for a second Masters degree, this one in Clinical Mental Health Counseling.

The Paper.: What is Wilderwood and who is it for?

Dr. Rebecca Evanko: While Wilderwood is open to anyone, its programs are designed by and for Autistic people, and so the Autistic population stands to benefit most from the programs. Wilderwood offers curriculum-based, equine-assisted programs for Autistic adults, as well as Autistic children, and a summer day camp for Autistic children. We accept participants from the age of 8 and our adult participants to date have been from 18 to 55.

Wilderwood is also a place for the community to be involved. Our volunteers are integral to our success, ranging from teaching assistants, Autistic mentors, guest instructors and general volunteers for our Volunteer Days held throughout the year to work on specific projects at Wilderwood.

Also where space is available – [Wilderwood] rescues abandoned or unwanted horses and provides them with a lifetime loving home. As part of its mission Wilderwood also educates people about horses and Autism.

What inspired you to create Wilderwood? What need did you see that wasn’t being filled?

Our overarching desire is to leave the world a better place than we found it and the way we have chosen to do this is by creating programs designed to help bring out the possibilities in the lives of Autistic people as well as horses. Our philosophy is based on the idea of HAutism, or the innate connection between horses and Autistic people, and our honor for the concept of giving back.

Wilderwood began as filling a need for Autistic adults – a disability group for whom services are practically non-existent. Two-thirds of Autistic adults do not have intellectual disability and yet as a group we have the highest rate of under or unemployment, depression and suicide of any disability group. This is an absolute travesty and reflects the often-hidden nature of Autism in adults. One of the most frequent refrains adult Autistics hear from the non-Autistic community is “But you don’t look Autistic!” We are Autistic and we can flourish in our communities provided we have some opportunity to level the playing field so we can fulfill our considerable talent and potential while still staying true to our Autistic selves.

We often find that Autism is viewed within the general community from a negative perspective. Much of the language used to describe us is framed in negative terms. Even the diagnostic descriptor is negative: “Autism Spectrum Disorder,” with our Autistic traits phrased as “deficits” or “inabilities.” There is an immense need for, firstly, our recognition as Autistic people (rather than “people with Autism,” as though it’s a deficit-based addendum that can – or should – be “cured”), and a re-visioning of us and our abilities, strengths, contributions, and worth as Autistic people. Wilderwood takes this perspective as a baseline premise.

What does the future of Wilderwood look like?

Rebecca: We’ve been so immensely privileged and fortunate to have input from many people along the way, including Autistic people themselves as well as professionals from the fields of clinical and mental health, education and equitation. We have also been enormously honored to receive several grants from individuals, private foundations and businesses. Wilderwood continues to grow and fulfill its mission, honoring Autistic people as Autistic people while also caring for and educating about the horses who are so central to our programs and underscore all that we do.

In addition to our current programs, Wilderwood plans to develop community and workplace seminars to help better inform businesses and services about the talents, contributions and needs of Autistic people, and will be hosting several small equine clinics to help fulfill its mission of educating people about horses, horse-training, and horse-handling.

It sounds like serving even more Autistic girls and women is also in Wilderwood’s future as Rebecca tells us that there has been “a huge research gap relating to Autistic women. The conventional wisdom is that the ratio of male:female Autistic people is about 4:1. [But] recently published research is beginning to cast doubt on those figures, with indications that it could actually be as high (and inverted) as a 3:4 ratio; that is, four Autistic females for every three Autistic males. If that research continues to show evidence of this diagnostic inversion, it has huge potential in relation to implications for the mental health of Autistic girls and Autistic women.”

With humble beginnings on a laptop in a living room about four years ago, Wilderwood is an organization for a community founded by a member of that community. A dynamic that is frustratingly more often than not lacking when it comes to Autism support organizations. REPRESENTATION MATTERS. So if you’re making a donation this Autistic Awareness Month, please consider doing so to an organization that is not only for Autistic people but also by Autistic people.