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Family uses agriculture as autism therapy tool

By Jennifer M. Latzke

Every day Mikeala feeds her chickens and collects their eggs. Her parents Jeanie and Tony Zortman say the simple farm chores give her a sense of purpose. They hope that other young adults with autism could benefit from agricultural work as well. (Journal photo by Jennifer M. Latzke.)

Tony and Jeanie Zortman, Wilroads Gardens, Kan., never thought they’d become parental advocates or public speakers or serve on governmental task forces.

But, when their daughter Mikeala stopped talking and was diagnosed with autism at age 3, they quickly learned that opportunities for diagnosis and treatment to help autistic children and adults in southwest Kansas were limited. And who better to advocate for Mikeala and other children with diagnoses on the autism spectrum, than themselves?

They began by gathering as much information about autism as possible, and creating a support system of school educators, autism experts, and other professionals to help Mikeala and other children in southwest Kansas. This became Autism Southwest Kansas, which started bringing conferences and trainings to the region for parents and educators. They also worked to bring the KU Medical Center Autism Outreach Clinic to Dodge City, and have helped train local professionals and educators about advocacy and awareness of autism.

“Fifteen years ago, the resources were better back in the eastern part of the state,” Jeanie said. Just to get a diagnosis for Mikeala meant a 9-month waiting list to see a developmental pediatrician and a three-hour drive to Wichita.

And then, once diagnosed, “you got a pile of pamphlets and were set loose on your own,” Tony added.

Through advocating for Mikeala, Jeanie learned that research and data collection on diagnosis of autism and therapy for children was sorely lacking. And, those entities that were conducting research weren’t sharing data amongst themselves. She eventually was named the chairman of the Kansas Governor’s Commission on Autism, as well as other task forces. Jeanie also began gathering autism experts, early childhood development professionals and state resources together to benefit autistic children in the underserved southwest portion of the state. She also started a couple of support groups for parents with children with autism.

Through all of this immersion in autism therapies, research and advocacy, the Zortmans were working with their little girl on her verbal skills. One therapy included Jeanie sitting down with Mikeala and singing “Old McDonald.”

“At the end of the day, during bathtime, I’d sing ‘Old McDonald’ and I would mouth the words and the sounds of the animals,” Jeanie said. “Her first word was ‘moo.’ And soon she’d make the sounds of the animals.”

Soon, Mikeala was using animal sounds to communicate her feelings with her parents. The therapy continued, and today they can’t keep Mikeala from talking, Jeanie joked. In fact, Mikeala, as a high school student, has lettered in academics.

Yet, that was just one hurdle in a list of many. What about their little girl’s future as she grew into a teenager and then an adult?

The answer came with a trip to Denver to see Temple Grandin speak about living with autism and her work in the animal science field.

“That trip, when I saw her, it injected me with so much excitement and I started thinking about the possibilities for Mikeala,” Jeanie said.

Up until then, the couple’s energies were spent working with their daughter and specialists to improve her speech and social skills. But hearing about Grandin’s connection with livestock and how therapeutic that had been for her had the Zortmans’ interest. Maybe Mikeala could connect with livestock and find some meaningful work as an adult with autism like Grandin had done.

It also inspired Jeanie and Tony to bring Grandin to Dodge City to speak and share that feeling with other families like theirs.

To raise the speaking fee, the Zortmans started looking around for a project that they could do together as a family, and maybe give Mikeala some independence. And that song “Old McDonald,” gave another bit of inspiration.

If Mikeala started out communicating through animal sounds, maybe animals could help her again.

So, they bought Mikeala some chickens. Feeding the chickens and collecting eggs each day was a simple enough task that she could do, and she enjoyed working and playing with the flock. Then, Jeanie started baking with the eggs and Tony sold the goods to local businesses and posting flyers around town.

With the bake sales and egg sales and the help of a grant, the family raised enough money to bring Grandin to Dodge City the first time a few years ago. They’ve continued to raise funds to bring her back for a second time this summer.

The Zortmans are again working with the Dodge City Community to put on a two-day speaking event at the Magouirk Conference Center in Dodge City July 23 and 24. This time, Grandin will be participating in a cattleman’s workshop July 23, presenting on cattle handling and behavior. Then, on July 24, Grandin will participate in an autism workshop for parents and professionals who work with autistic children and adults.

Beyond bringing families and professionals together for education about autism, the event is also a fundraiser for the Zortmans’ dream—Puzzle Piece Ranch. This non-profit will provide young adults with autism opportunities to work with animals and crops to earn a living and be independent. Additionally, funds will be used to give a scholarship to a child with autism or other disability to continue their education or training.

Mikeala is 17 years old now, Jeanie explained. She will leave school at 21. But the Zortmans were concerned about her future and the future of other young adults like her.

“What will she do?” Jeanie asked. “Where will she live? What will she do for work?”

Again, the Zortmans turned to agriculture.

The idea behind Puzzle Piece Ranch came from the couple attending the Farms and Ranches Enabling People with Disabilities Conference, a meeting that shares opportunities for people with disabilities to live and work in a group setting on farms and ranches. Agriculture has been such a great therapy tool for their daughter, that they think it could be so for others.

Right now, the ranch consists of chickens, some goats, a donkey and some fruit trees, but the Zortmans have dreams of it becoming a small self-sustaining project that could employ several adults with any range of disabilities.

“The ranch is an idea that has been a long time coming,” Tony said. “We know nothing happens overnight, but in 5 or 10 years we’d like to have something in place.”

“Kids vary in their abilities,” Jeanie said. “But we have certainly learned the therapeutic value of animals through Mikeala.”

Jeanie said that she and Tony may not be experts in autism in all children—but they are the experts of autism in one child, Mikeala. And they advise other parents and families like theirs to keep advocating for their children’s opportunities.

“You’re going to have to fight every day for your child,” Jeanie said.

“We live by two sayings in this house,” Tony said. “All things are possible. And all things work together for good.

“We’ve been blessed,” he added. “Mikeala is our biggest blessing. She’s working and she has a lot of work still left to do.”

For registration information about Temple Grandin’s two-day event in Dodge City July 23 and 24, visit, and click on the link, “Two Days with Temple Grandin.”

Jennifer M. Latzke can be reached at 620-227-1807 or

Date: 6/24/2013


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