At first glance, I am the least likely person to write about pet therapy for special-needs people. Oh, I have the caretaking role down since I’m the mother of a 30 year-old son with autism. I’ve been dealing with that since back in the day when it only occurred in 1 in 10,000 births and no one knew what I meant when I said the word ‘autism.’ Then along came the movie Rainman, and – voila– everyone suddenly knew the word.
And did I mention that my son, Byron, is afraid of all animals?
Flash forward to the present – sadly, not only are people acquainted with the disorder, they usually have a family member or are friends with someone who’s been touched with an autism diagnosis in their own families. It’s even reached such epidemic proportions that autism research was mentioned in the last presidential debates.
Wonderful avenues have opened up over the years for persons with autism and their families: Ground-breaking therapies, public awareness and educational advancements. And along with the good, there have been well-meaning people who have loaded unwarranted guilt upon parents: the celebrities who proclaim cures with special diets, authors who assert that 24/7 therapy (insert the au jour treatment of the day) will obliterate all signs of autism and make someone ‘normal.’
To which I say . . . hogwash. That’s not to say you can’t experiment with different avenues, if it’s not harmful for your loved one. But there is no one answer or miracle cure. There is a wonderful resource for parents now that addresses this very issue. http://www.autism-island.com/2012/03/50-things-you-should-not-say-to-autism.html
And just as autism and its symptoms are different for each individual, so also are the appropriate, alternative kinds of therapy. There is a whole smorgasbord to choose from: water, dance, music, art, nutritional, occupational, massage and . . . pet therapy.
Full disclosure: as I mentioned earlier my son, Byron, is scared to death of animals. To my knowledge, he’s never been bitten, scratched or harmed in any way by an animal. Up until he was about ten years old, whenever we came within fifty yards of a dog, Byron would literally climb onto my hips and hold on for dear life, whimpering and trembling. Didn’t matter if the dog was a loving puppy or a full-grown Golden Retriever, a breed that I find particularly gentle and kind. (Writer Anne Lamott describes them as the adorable ‘koala bears’ of the canine world.)
Being more of a cat person myself, our family has had cats since Byron was very young. Up until last year Byron would scream in terror if one of them came too close. “Get!” he would shout in ear-splitting decibels. No amount of encouragement or demonstration of how to pet a cat worked.
The cats learned to give him a wide berth.
As an animal-lover, I wanted Byron to form a special connection with a pet. With all his social impairments with other people, I had hoped he could experience the joy animals hold for us. Why couldn’t he form this kind of special bond?
A wise teacher stepped in. “Think about it, Debbie. Cats and dogs are unpredictable. They’ll jump on you for no reason, make all kind of strange noises and do other weird stuff.”
Aha. Byron is enamored with routine and order. If I look at the situation from his point of view, this makes its own kind of sense.
For other parents, pet therapy may be a viable option. Perhaps it is just the thing that will provide their child with comfort and happiness. Even in my rural area, there are a myriad of opportunities to explore, a whole world that includes more than dogs and cats. (See list at the end of this article.)
I visited our local humane center and spoke to the director. She’s matched hundreds of special-needs persons with animals over the years. What she tells every family is not much different from what she encourages everyone to do: come into the shelter with an open mind and spend time with the animals. Sit with their energy. Observe them at play. See which one chooses you. Yes, there are certain breeds known for being more suitable because of their temperament, but just as everyone person, challenged or not, is different — so every animal has their own personality. She also said it is perfectly acceptable, even encouraged, for a family to try-out an animal for a period of time in their own home to make sure there is a correct fit. If it doesn’t work out, an animal may be returned and adopted by someone else.
So . . . it never hurts to provide your child with new experiences. They may just find their new best friend! I’ve heard and read lots of stories about special bonds formed between persons with autism and pets. Besides the usual connections with domestic, common animals like cats and dogs, there is horseback riding and swimming with the dolphins (doesn’t that sound wonderful and incredible?). I even read a recent Guideposts Magazine article about a person with autism forming a special connection with a chimpanzee at his local zoo.
Pets may not be Byron’s ‘thing’ – he’s personally into water and swims like a fish – but at least he has grown more tolerant of them. We have a four year-old orange tabby, Grendel, who’s doing his best to win Byron over. Grendel respects Byron’s boundaries and doesn’t jump on him or get too close, but he will sit a few feet away from Byron and observe him, as if trying to figure him out.
And I’ve noted another curious thing. Over time, Grendel has gradually inched closer to Byron, closing the physical distance between them. I’ve caught the two of them staring at each other intently with mutual, bemused curiosity. Who knows where this might lead one day? Grendel might decide to never inch any closer, or Byron may rebuff him.
But . . . I’ve got my money on Grendel.
Your local humane center!
Dogs on Call program with Easter Seals. http://alabama.easterseals.com/site/PageServer?pagename=ALDR_DOGS_ON_CALL
Mane Stream – equine program for the special-needs population. http://www.shhrc.org/
Petfinder – adopt the perfect pet from any pet shelter. (But still visit in-person, if possible.) http://www.petfinder.com/index.html
Dolphin therapy – Actually, I was surprised to read this is now considered controversial. Research well and make an informed decision. http://www.autisable.com/719397011/autism-therapy–dolphin-therapy/
General information on pet therapy and autism: http://www.everydayhealth.com/autism/how-pet-therapy-can-help.aspx