Pigs Helping Kids

A sector of parents are seeing profound results in the behavior and self-esteem of their children—all because of pigs! It might sound ironic, but pigs and kids translate into better social skills, and even better grooming habits.

This is not the result of a clinical study amongst the farm community. It comes from the testimony of metro-area parents who’ve witnessed life-changing improvements in their children following a routine of brushing, feeding and training livestock. You’ll have goosebumps (or maybe hog-bumps) after you read the following two stories—one about an autistic middle-schooler and the other about triplet brothers.

First, meet Josh Hargis, the agricultural teacher who threads these stories together. Hargis was so affected by this first story that he went back to school, started the nonprofit Agvocates, and is now endorsed by leaders in autism including the world-renowned Temple Grandin.  

The Middle-Schooler

With PigAccording to Hargis, “When you work in a public school, children with disabilities are usually mainstreamed into a hands-on class such as agriculture. I had a 14-year-old autistic student whom I will call Greg. He sat by himself and rarely talked, but he’d light up whenever we went to the barn, he would greet the pigs and rub their bellies.”   

Seeing the change in Greg around the animals, Hargis consulted with Greg’s parents about raising a pig as a project and they agreed. Instead of focusing on a traditional 4-H or FFA (Future Farmers of America) livestock project, Hargis focused on transferable life skills that would help Greg transition into the workforce after high school.

“Greg got into the routine of brushing that pig’s hair every day,” Hargis said. “His mother called one day, ecstatic, and said, ‘Did you see Greg this morning? He brushed his own hair today!’ This was a huge breakthrough for this family, to see their child begin caring for himself after caring for an animal.“

To fast forward, Greg’s animal-care skills advanced to the point that Hargis entered him into a county pig show. That meant walking in an arena with about 20 other people and their pigs while keeping eye contact with the judge. “We worked on eye contact and he made tremendous progress,” Hargis said.

“Greg competed against 100 other kids in his age group—not in a special education category. It was a huge deal, with 4,000 people in the stadium, but Greg focused—and he won Grand Champion of the whole show!” Greg’s dad rushed down from the stands and said, “Josh, thank you for helping my son. I’d given up on ever seeing him compete in anything, let alone win.” That really resonated with Hargis. “I thought about all that livestock shows had to offer, regardless of athletic ability or cognitive function. Anyone can interact with an animal.”

Greg won a belt buckle as his prize, and he wore it every single day to school. “And this non-verbal child became talkative at school because he had something positive to talk about,” Hargis said. “After having similar results with another student, I felt like God was putting this path in front of me, and I’d be a fool not to do more with it.”

So, Hargis made a dramatic change in his own life. He moved from Texas to Yukon, Oklahoma, and got a master’s degree in special education. He also founded Agvocates for Exceptional Individuals, a non-profit organization that connects students to their local 4-H and FFA organizations, develops therapeutic plans and works to provide financial assistance for animal expenses. In the long-term, he hopes to purchase a small farm and have a breeding stock of animals to provide to students.

And then he met the Howell triplets…

The Triplets

“This is a crazy story. I was looking for participants for my master’s thesis when I met a family with triplets, all on the autism spectrum—and they lived three miles from me,” Hargis said.

Triplets with PigJacob, the highest-functioning child, seemed to have plateaued in occupational therapy. Plateaued at 11 years old? That was unacceptable to Hargis. “Jacob was so focused on walking from point A to B to C, that if someone was standing in between, he’d walk right over them,” Hargis said. “I believed that he could learn to walk the path with his pig and maneuver around a maze of obstacles.”

As before, Hargis saw so much improvement in Jacob, and then his brother Keegan, that he encouraged them to enter a traditional 4-H competition. Their parents couldn’t believe how they walked with coordination, without dragging their feet and without running into anyone in the busy show arena. And both boys won awards in the top ten! “It was mind-blowing,” said father, Duane Howell. “They were learning life skills and getting praise like typical kids get. Even Harrison, a fairly non-verbal savant, will put down his calculator and iPad to brush the pigs.” 

In addition, the family found a new social circle, which, according to Hargis, is tough for parents with special needs children. They often focus on health appointments and avoiding awkward social situations, which inhibits the fostering of friendships. “The whole family can help at the barn. Our kids are around people other than their teachers and therapists. Of course, saying ‘Hi’ to the pigs is still the boys’ first priority, followed by talking to the female mentors,” Howell said with a laugh.

The Endorsement

In 2012, Hargis and Howell presented at the Oklahoma Autism Conference. In the audience was keynote speaker Temple Grandin, a respected autistic woman who single-handedly changed the cattle industry by developing a corral system.

 “Afterward, she made a beeline toward me and said that Agvocates was the most exciting thing to happen in the autism society in decades,” Hargis said. “She’s written an endorsement for our program and promotes it all over the country. We’ve had emails from 24 states, asking how they could get involved in Agvocates.” On Grandin’s website, she says, “The true meaning of life is to do something that makes real change for somebody.”

The families who’ve worked with Josh Hargis are quick to testify that he has made “real change” in their lives—even if the acts of hair brushing and walking in a line seem like simple acts to most people. “These amazing kids are competing with typical peers, and not just competing, but winning,” Hargis said.

“Josh needs a huge award,” Howell said. “Our kids are having fun and have a sense of purpose while learning life skills. His dream has given our boys a way to contribute to society and learn skills for their future.”

Learn more by calling Josh Hargis at 760-5520 or visit agvocates.org.

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