From Silence to Singing: Harper’s Story

A barn in rural Iowa may not be the first place you expect to see a miracle unfold, but for Katlyn, mom to 5-year-old Harper, that’s exactly what it feels like.

“Just over a year ago, Harper, who has autism, did not speak at all,” said Katlyn. “We came to ChildServe for speech therapy because we had no way of understanding his wants or needs. He couldn’t communicate even a simple phrase to explain how he felt, so he struggled with frequent tantrums out of frustration.”

Katlyn watched with concern at how these barriers impacted her son’s ability to live a great life – from limiting his ability to develop relationships and connect with the world, to slowing his progress in building important skills for success in school.

The ChildServe team was prepared to meet the family where they were and help them move forward. For Harper, who loves animals and activities with movement, the team created a plan filled with play-based activities to keep him engaged and motivated while completing the important work of therapy. Last fall, the team encouraged Katlyn to sign Harper up for a 10-week hippotherapy program.

Hippotherapy is provided by a licensed physical, occupational or speech therapist who incorporates the movement of horseriding into sessions while working on therapy goals. ChildServe offers hippotherapy through a partnership with the aptly named Miracles In Motion Therapeutic Equestrian Center.

As part of hippotherapy, kids ride trained therapy horses with support from their ChildServe therapist and several volunteers who direct the horses. They follow a path that includes therapeutic activities like playing with wind chimes or going around, over or through obstacles.

“When riding a horse, children experience sights, smells, movement through space, the movement of their bodies, and tactile opportunities like touching the horse’s hair,” said ChildServe Rehabilitation Manager Rachel Kongshaug. “All these things working together put their brain and body in the perfect environment to learn new skills.”

“After starting hippotherapy, Harper really began to blossom. He absolutely loved riding the horses, and his therapist used all kinds of activities to help engage him in communicating,” said Katlyn. “He practiced saying ‘walk on’ to ask the horse to move forward and mastered simple tasks using his communication device, like naming animals and colors. Eventually, he even began to excitedly say ‘horse’ as we arrived at Miracles in Motion.”

Through his work with ChildServe speech therapists in the clinic and at hippotherapy, as well as hours of practicing at home, Harper has gained three different ways to express himself.

“Harper can now use sign language, a speech device and his growing verbal vocabulary to share his wants, needs and feelings,” said Katlyn. “Lately he’s even been saying two-to-three-word phrases without prompting and attempting to sing along with any song he hears – both things I wouldn’t have thought possible just a year ago.”

“Harper has made consistent progress in both his understanding and expression of language over the past few years,” said Kelsey Norris, speech-language pathologist. “However, when he began hippotherapy with my fellow speech therapist, Hannah Rigler, alongside his regular speech sessions, his progress catapulted to a new level. He began to show us new skills weekly, and it was such a good reminder to presume competence in the children we serve. Harper has so many incredible communication skills – we just needed to provide him with the appropriate supports, one of which was hippotherapy.”

As Katlyn watches her son’s growing ability to engage with the world around him and connect with others, she’s expanded her hopes for what his future holds.

“The skills Harper is learning in speech therapy are helping him every day, all the time. I am constantly noticing new words that I didn’t expect him to know, that he can now point to or recognize. Harper has gained so much, so quickly, with the help of his team, and I can’t wait to see where he goes from here.”


ChildServe improves the health and well-being of nearly 5,800 children each year through specialized clinical, home, and community-based programs and services. We serve children with developmental delays, disabilities, injuries, and other special healthcare needs.

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