Snakes shed creepy image, help kids with autism

Finn Lodwick holds Thor at the Yampa Valley Autism Project’s main offices in Steamboat Springs.
John F. Russell

STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — The smile on Finn Lodwick’s face lights up the room at the Yampa Valley Autism Program center in Steamboat Springs where the 9-year-old has just wrapped up a therapy session with Social Cognition Director Diane Yazbeck.

“I would have never thought snakes, of all things, would be a part of this,” Yazbeck said. “To see what it is doing for my students, that is the joy in having them here, and it really is working.”

Finn is one of the students who has had a positive connection with the snakes, and the promise he’ll have a few minutes to visit with Thor, a 5-foot ball python, motivates his productivity in the session. After completing his therapy, he rushes to Thor, and within a few minutes, the snake is wrapped around his neck, and Finn’s appreciation is plastered across his face.

“If you would have asked me a year ago if I thought it would have made a difference in his therapy or just his motivation to work hard, I would not have guessed that it would have been as impactful as it has been,” Finn’s mom,  Sunshine Owens said.

While Yazbeck isn’t crazy about snakes, she is coming around,

“Lisa (Lorenz) is teaching me how to fall in love with the snakes,” Yazbeck said. “I’m still working on that.”

Lisa Lorenz serves as YVAP executive director and she came up with the idea of incorporating snakes into the nonprofit’s programs.

“It was all chance,” Lorenz said. “As a science teacher, I had all those crazy critters in my class, and when I retired from teaching, I gave them all away.”

But Lorenz, who was a seventh-grade science teacher for 20 years at the Steamboat Springs Middle School, said two of the snakes came back to her. There is Thor, and his daughter Khaleesi, who is a tad smaller.

“They were looking for a home, and I just kind of had them in my house temporarily,” Lorenz said.

But when Lorenz discovered that one of the students who is involved with the YVAP’s gardening program had a love of snakes, she saw an opportunity.

“So I took the snakes down to our gardening program one afternoon, and it was a magnet, just like with typical kids,” she said. “Everybody wanted to see it, and  everybody wanted to touch it.”

A few days later she brought the snake and its tank to her offices. The snakes started as a way to calm the students down when they came into therapy sessions.

“The kids that were coming in for therapy were so fascinated,” Lorenz said. “The first thing they did when they came into the office was to visit the snakes and hold the snakes. Then they started taking them into therapy.

“Even though the therapist isn’t a big fan of snakes, because it was so calming, they were able to verbalize what issues they were dealing with in the therapy session that week,” Lorenz explained. “They were able to talk to the snakes or explain to the snake about things, so it’s now being used as a communication alternative.”

She said that not all of the students, or even her therapist, are crazy about the snakes, but the results have opened Yazbeck’s mind to their value. Lorenz said 95 percent of the students who come to the office for therapy show a connection to the snakes. 

“We have been finding amazing success with kids with sensory needs in particular,” Lorenz said. “The snakes, they move slowly, they are heavy  — there is a weight piece of it that adds to the joint  pressure and the sensory input for the kids on the spectrum.” 

Lorenz said she doesn’t know of another program like this and has no knowledge of snakes being used as part of therapy for autism. She said she has reached out to various universities, including UC Santa Barbara and UCLA, about researching the use of snakes as autism therapy.

“We don’t know where it is going to go, but it’s pretty cool,” Lorenz said. “My board is worried that this is just going to mean that I get more snakes. I said ‘no, I think two is plenty.’”

Finn is perfectly content with the snakes he interacts with at the YVAP, and as he puts Thor back in his tanks at the end of the night, the connection is more than clear.

“He is happy,” Finn said as he peers through the glass sides of the tank after letting go of the snake. “He is going into his cave now, he loves his cave — I love him.”

To reach John F. Russell, call 970-871-4209, email or follow him on Twitter @Framp1966.

Support Local Journalism

Support Local Journalism

Readers around Steamboat and Routt County make the Steamboat Pilot & Today’s work possible. Your financial contribution supports our efforts to deliver quality, locally relevant journalism.

Now more than ever, your support is critical to help us keep our community informed about the evolving coronavirus pandemic and the impact it is having locally. Every contribution, however large or small, will make a difference.

Each donation will be used exclusively for the development and creation of increased news coverage.