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Guest Post: Animals And Autism

15 May

I am participating in the 2012 Wordcount Blogathon, which means one post every day for the month of May.

Guest post exchange day was yesterday, but really, with so many phenomenal bloggers in the same challenge, how could I pick just one? Today’s guest blogger, Sarah, focuses on an area very close to my heart: animals, their relationships with people, and how they can facilitate healing. She just finished her first year of the Doctorate of Physical Therapy program at LSU-New Orleans. She is  passionate about animals and children and plans on integrating animals into her physical therapy practice after she graduates.

As a lifelong animal lover myself, I am drawn to Sarah’s blog like a magnet, and am thrilled that she agreed to write for me. Today, she shares with us how animals and children with autism can have a very special bond.

When people envision their perfect life with 2.5 kids and a white picket fence they also usually include a pet in the picture. After parents hear their child given the diagnosis of “autism”, often the idea of having a pet is questioned. In general, animals definitely provide many benefits to their owners, but as Kirsten recently reminded me “If you’ve met one person with autism, you’ve met one person with autism.” So what works for one child or family may not work with another.

The cool thing is that there have been several groups that have seen a lot of positive effects in children with autism after interacting with animals.

Max is one of Austin Dog Alliance’s “special dogs” available for adoption.

Austin Dog Alliance has group social skill classes where they use dogs to teach children with autism and Asperger’s. Some of the topics touched on in these classes include verbal and motor skills, interacting with and empathy for others, and appropriate behaviors both in and out of the classroom. These same skills can be achieved with a pet at home. The child can practice speaking to the dog and learn to recognize and understand the animal’s non-verbal cues. In doing this they are maintaining eye contact, which some people with autism struggle with. They can also learn to care about and for another living creature. This lesson can then translate to their interactions with other people.

Horse Boy Foundation brings kids in contact with horses to help them through what they call a “simple 6 stage process”. They’ve found that allowing kids to lie down on a horse’s back cuts down on their stimming (a repetitive movement that self stimulates the senses). Interacting with the horse is good overall sensory work while the actual horseback riding can be soothing because of the rocking motion. Again, giving commands allows the child to work on verbalization. I know that for most people owning a horse is out of the question, but there are several places that have horseback riding lessons where your child could get some of the same benefits. (it’s a youtube video about the Horse Boy Method)

Lois Brady found that a potbellied pig named Buttercup works wonders with the children. She’s a speech language pathologist, so of course her focus is getting the children to talk. But she has found that her pig is great for sensory work because he has different textures in different places on his body. The best thing about him is that people don’t have preconceived fears about pigs, like they might with a dog or even a horse.

(Photo from:

Buttercup is a great example that really any kind of pet can be used to help with things like speaking, motor skills, empathy and self-confidence. Some people prefer to have an animal specifically trained as a service animal and that has its benefits as well. You can read my post about autism service dogs to learn more about them. The most important thing is to decide what animal (if any) will be a good fit for your family.

Check out more great posts from Sarah Allen on her blog, Animals Help Heal. You can follow her on Twitter @AnimalsHelpHeal.


24 Apr

I am participating in the Health Activist Writers Month Challenge, in which I publish a post every day for the month of April, based on health-related prompts.

April 24 – Health mascot: Give yourself, your condition, or your health focus a mascot. Is it a real person? Fictional? Mythical being? Describe them. Bonus points if you provide a visual.

Seventeen  years ago, shortly after I had moved into my first apartment, I brought home a squirming pillow case containing a tiny scrap of a cat. At the tender age of three weeks, the kitten had been rejected by his mother, a stray cat who had had her litter up against a co-worker’s fence. This tiny creature was ill and emaciated, and holding onto life by a mere thread.

I called him Murphy, figured out how to feed him, and with the vet’s help, I nursed him to health. He made the transformation from sick helpless kitten to strong, healthy cat, and he ended up living a long and happy life.

It has been said that cats are autistic. They are seen to be aloof and unsociable, while at the same time being very, very smart. Murphy in particular would have been a great mascot for autism – at least, for my son George’s unique brand of autism.

* Murphy had a rough start to life and needed a lot of special care and attention. He thrived despite his challenges.

* Murphy, being a cat, was not the most sociable of beings. He tended to slink away and keep to himself if unfamiliar people were around, but once you earned his trust, he was your friend for life.

* Murphy did not like strange surroundings or circumstances. The first time I took him to my mom’s place he was a bag of nerves. After a few visits, however, he acted like he owned the place.

* Murphy had definite sensory issues. He disliked loud noises and crawled into my closet whenever there was a thunderstorm.

* Murphy thought way out of the box. He was intelligent and got up to some hilarious antics with the intention of making me laugh.

* A complex creature by nature, Murphy was happy as long as he knew where things stood. He did not react well to changes in routine.

When I left South Africa, I made the heartbreaking decision to leave Murphy behind. He was used to the sunshine and the wide open spaces, and to uproot him would have been the wrong thing to do. My mom willingly gave him the best possible home, and he lived a very contented life with her until he died of kidney failure just a few months ago, at the stately age of 16.

Although George never got to meet Murphy, I have no doubt that boy and cat were kindred spirits.

(Photo credit: Kirsten Doyle)

Stupid Or Just Different?

23 Sep

While I was having lunch with some work friends today, we started talking about an incident several years ago in which a kid was mauled by a wolf at a zoo.

What happened was that the child, who was maybe ten, climbed into the wolf enclosure. The leader of the pack, understandably upset about the invasion to his territory, attacked the child. The child suffered serious injuries, and the family had to fork out thousands of dollars for expensive medical procedures.

The family was desperate to recoup some of their expenses, so they filed a lawsuit against the zoo. They claimed that the zoo was responsible for the injuries suffered by the child. None of us could remember the outcome of the case.

As we discussed this story today, several opinions emerged around the table. The person who raised the topic believes that it was ridiculous for the parents to sue the zoo. After all, if your child climbs into an enclosure occupied by wild animals, what do you think is going to happen?

I pointed out that if it was so easy for the child to get into the enclosure, maybe the zoo was responsible. There clearly were not enough safeguards in place to prevent the incident. I mean, zoos are full of kids, and kids are not exactly predictable in their actions.

The guy seated to my left had an opinion of his own: the zoo would have been entitled to sue the family because the child was so stupid.

This remark offended me more than a little, and I think my lunch companions were a bit taken aback with the intensity of my reaction.

Here’s the thing. My older son George – the one who has autism – is streets away from being like a typical kid. He does not respond to things the way other kids do. He has his own special blend of needs, wants, perceptions and anxieties. He has a view of the world that the rest of us do not necessarily understand. And because of the way he is, because of his autism, he sometimes behaves in a way that would be widely regarded as counterintuitive. He will do things that do not make sense. Only they do make sense. Just because his actions do not always make sense to anyone else, we have to respect the fact that they make sense to him.

I have fairly very through-the-roof strong feelings about the idea of anyone daring to refer to my child as “stupid” just because he doesn’t do things the way other kids would do them.

I am not necessarily saying that George would climb into a den of wolves, but I can understand how a kid with autism could look at the wolves and see dogs. I can get how that kid’s mind could tell him that these “dogs” are no different from the friendly dog at his grandma’s house. And I am totally see how a child with autism may not have the sense of danger that other people do. He may not read the cues of bared fangs and growls.

All I am saying is that it is wrong to assume that a child is stupid just because he does something that most people wouldn’t do. You never know what is going on with the child or his family. There could be a lot more to it than meets the eye.

What are your thoughts on this? Is it ever OK to label a child as “stupid” on the basis of actions that are undeniably unwise? Is my outrage at my co-worker’s remark justified?

(Photo credit: This picture has a creative commons attribution license.)

The Cow Whisperer

15 Jul

It was a beautiful summer’s day in 2007. George, who was three months shy of his 4th birthday, had recently been diagnosed with autism, and James was 18 months old. Our world, which had been so badly rocked by the reality of having a son with a lifelong disability, was starting to stabilize a little, but at that point, we really didn’t know how much hope we should have.

The diagnosing doctor had emphatically – kindly, but emphatically – told us not to expect too much, ever. He had not given us a good prognosis.

On this particular Saturday, we packed the kids into the car with a picnic, and we went for a drive. We went in the general direction of some lakes to the north of us, but we had no fixed destination. We picked our route at random, taking whatever country roads we liked the look of. The kids were happy enough: we are fortunate to have been blessed with two fantastic car travelers.

All of a sudden, we heard George’s voice piping up from the back seat: “Cow!”

The van shuddered a little as we screeched to a halt. Back then, hearing George say anything at all was a cause for celebration. We turned around and looked at him, sitting there in his booster seat.

“What did you say?” I asked, trying to sound nonchalant.

“Cow!” he said again, his eyes gleaming with excitement.

I turned to Gerard. “I guess George saw a cow,” I told him.

Without hesitation, Gerard did a three-point turn on the narrow country road, and we slowly headed back in the direction from whence we had come.

It took less than a minute for us to see them: a field full of cows, lazily flicking their tails as they chewed on the long grass.

“Cow! Cow!” yelled George. The kid was practically levitating, he was so excited.

We parked on the side of the road and got out of the car so George could see the cows. The kids ran ahead of us to the fence, James tottering slightly on his chubby little toddler legs. We all stood at the fence together, silently watching the cows, who looked back at us with apparent disinterest.

Thinking that this would make a nice picture of Gerard and the two boys, I dug in my bag for my camera. The confounded thing had fallen right to the bottom of my bag, so I had to put in about two minutes of dedicated scrabbling. When I looked up again, I was confronted with the most remarkable sight.

There was Gerard standing slightly in front of the fence holding James’ hand. There was George, a little way further down the fence. And there were the cows – all thirty or so of them – flocked right up close to the fence where George was. They were showing zero interest in the rest of us, but they were utterly enthralled with George. He was fearlessly sticking his hands through the fence, and they were gently nuzzling him and softly mooing at him. In turn, he was smiling tenderly at them, with a look of absolute wonder in his eyes.

It looked like my son had some kind of cult following of cows. Like he was their god or something.

I wasn’t merely witnessing a little boy stroking a bunch of cows. I was witnessing this incredible moment of communication between boy and beast, a moment that was so incredibly powerful and beautiful.

George, like most people with autism, has trouble interacting with the rest of the world. But at that moment, he was in perfect harmony with the world, in a way that I can only dream of.

(Photo credit:

Do Cats Go To Dog Heaven?

24 Mar

My first-ever dog, who had the somewhat regal name of Judge, was what we refer to in South Africa as a “pavement special”. He was a mixed-breed, and I have no idea what his lineage was. His mother, Kentucky, was a mixed bag herself, and we don’t even know who the father was. This doesn’t speak volumes for Kentucky’s moral values, but I guess this is less of a problem when you’re a dog.

Judge was about the height of a lab retriever but had the relative proportions of a bulldog. His facial features resembled those of Clifford The Big Red Dog, except that Judge was a couple of shades lighter than chocolate brown. He had enormous feet that wouldn’t have looked out of place on a St. Bernard. It was as if God, when He was done creating dogs, assembled all of the leftover dog bits and used them to make Judge.

I was young when we got Judge. So young that I have no memory of him coming into our family. To me, he was always there. According to my parents, however, he and I instantly took a shine to each other and we became inseparable. He was a big dog, especially from my toddler perspective, but he was unfailingly gentle. Although my parents were always vigilant, they never had to worry about whether I was safe with Judge.

My relationship with Judge had to be temporarily put on hold when I six. My Dad’s employers sent him on a three-year secondment to the United States, and we all went with him. We were able to bring our two fox terriers with us, along with our two cats, but Judge and Kentucky had to stay home as long-term residents of a local kennel. It seemed patently unfair to me that I had to leave my dog behind while my brother got to bring his dog, a fox terrier named Bianca, who was affectionately referred to as the Bionic Watermelon. I took some solace from the fact that my Siamese cat, Megan, accompanied us.

Three years later, we returned to South Africa. Me and my brother, our parents, the two dogs, one of the original cats, a new cat named Sarah who had been acquired to help me get over the loss of Megan during our stay, and a stray ginger cat named Ginger Peasley who had adopted us (Ginger Peasley was mean to everybody except my Dad, upon whom he lavished unending affection).

On our return to South Africa, we went to the kennels to claim Judge and Kentucky. I don’t remember much about the reunion, but I do recall that in very short order, Judge and I were best of friends again. My fears that he had forgotten me during our three-year separation were totally unfounded, and Judge and I frolicked happily together for several more years.

One day, shortly after the next-door neighbour’s dog had been run over and killed by the milkman (deliberately, we’re sure of it), Judge got sick. He was fine when he woke up in the morning, but by mid-afternoon he was lying helplessly on his side, breathing shallowly and too weak to even lift his head. By dinnertime, my beloved dog was dead.

We don’t know for sure what happened. We suspect the milkman, who by all appearances, had a toxic hatred for dogs. There was no way to prove anything, of course, but we did stop having our milk delivered after that.

Over the years, we have said goodbye to many dogs and cats. A few have died of old age; most have been euthanazed due to illness. My cat Sarah, who we brought back with us from America, lived to a ripe old age before her hips gave in. Mean old Ginger Peasley had heart trouble, although he did attain a good age. Bianca the Bionic Watermelon developed kidney problems.Kentucky, Judge’s mother, outlived all of the animals of her generation. She lived to a very respectable age and then simply didn’t wake up one morning.

Every time one of these four-legged friends has died, many tears have been shed. Today, one more was added to their number as my Mom made the heartbreaking decision to have her old dog Bella put to sleep. Bella lived a good life, but her body was failing bit by bit and it was clear that her time was up. It is a sad day for my Mom, whose dogs and cats are her companions.

I’d be willing to bet, though, that Bella and Judge and all the rest of them are having a hoot in Dog Heaven. It must be complete chaos there.

My only question is this: Do cats go to Dog Heaven?

(Photo credit: