In Thailand, 'buffalo soldiers' help kids combat autism
The animal therapy is part of the military's softer side, one of hundreds of projects up and down the country the army is using to build support among civilians. (Representative image. Source: Wikimedia Commons)
They may not be the most advanced pieces of kit in Thailand's military arsenal, but "buffalo soldiers" are being deployed to help autistic children come out of their shells.
Under sweltering skies in central Thailand's Lopburi province this week, some two dozen children took rides on the backs of buffaloes.
The gentle bovines are owned by the Thai military, an organisation better known for coups than cuddles.
But this animal therapy is part of the military's softer side, one of hundreds of projects up and down the country the army is using to build support among civilians.
Recent research has shown that some autistic children, who often struggle with human interactions, respond well to animals, helping them learn key skills like being more patient and sharing.
Pimporn Thongmee said she had seen a major improvement since her five-year-old autistic grandson, nicknamed Shogun, enrolled in the military's three-month animal therapy course which sees children interact with buffaloes twice a week.
"My grandson never stayed still, never concentrated, and screamed but now he can socialise," she told AFP.
"He used to be afraid of the doctor but now he runs to him and leaves his grandma behind instead," she added.Those with disabilities or behavioural problems often find themselves stigmatised in Thailand where the concept of karma -- that good or bad deeds will be rewarded and punished in the next life -- is central.
Karma makes Thailand a famously generous country, with one of the highest charitable donation rates per household in the world.
But many Thais also believe those who suffer are being punished for sins in past lives, a view which can result in a sympathy deficit for the unfortunate and vulnerable.
Manit Kaewmanee said her 11-year-old son Captain was often bullied as he struggled to settle in schools, eventually forcing him to leave education.
"Many people said it was our past karma," she said. "They said he was crazy, couldn't speak, so how could he be in society, that it was shameful for him."
The buffalo therapy, she said, helped him conquer tasks he once had trouble with.
"Now he can cook instant noodles, and ride a bicycle very well," she said.
Sergeant Major Kajohnsak Junpeng, the lead trainer, explained that the gentle and slow nature of buffaloes made them ideal animals to work with autistic children.
"If children grab their tails, they won't kick like horses so there won't be an accident," he said.
Training animals and dealing with autistic children was not a job he imagined a soldier having to do, adding that it was often quite emotionally draining.
"But when I see the children progress I am proud of myself and the tiredness is gone," he said.