Pets Can Make all the Difference in the World of Autism
Recently, a mom was crying to me that her son has autism. I know that “I just got soccer punched in the gut” feeling after the doc says my children are “on the spectrum.” I listened to all her heart’s concerns and comments with the autism diagnosis. When she was finished I said to her, “Girl, if it wasn’t for autism, your son would never be able to fulfill all that God has for him in this lifetime. He is perfect just the way he is. My sons see the world differently and that’s part of their brilliance. Their “disability” is what makes them genius. Teachers thought Einstein had a learning disability and many other famous people have autism: Dan Aykroyd, Gary Numan, and Liane Holliday Willey. They are the ones who changed the world and they are in the history books. Flame your son’s greatness; don’t cry over it.” Throughout our conversation, I noticed her medium-sized yellow Lab would place his head on her lap and she would pet him. When she was done petting, he would either lay down near her or interact with her son.
As rewarding as it is to be a mother of children with greatness, I know the level of stress it brings along and I know it well, but for me my pets make all the difference in the world.
Our lives aren’t easy. Living with meltdowns, tantrums, and many times all of us are frustrated with the communication barriers. I know that I have to do things just a certain way. Like the green bowl. Cheerios and fish crackers belong in the green bowl. Not purple or blue or even a sandwich bag. A green bowl. Milk belongs in the red cup, and everything goes in order as far as our schedule. If our schedule gets off, our entire day is rough. This is my life. I have learned to navigate it, but even Miss Super Mom here has her moments.
Last weekend I think was the worst for me. I was sick with an ear and sinus infection and had to make a Walmart run on Sunday for groceries before the week started. One of my sons decided he wanted pretzels and I said “no.” I will make a long story short and share that we both ended up sitting in the middle of the Walmart floor crying as I was trying to get my hair loose from his impressive grip. There was a crowd. Autism is an invisible disability so people quickly judge. I know what it’s like.
In addition to being a mother, I am also a dog trainer. And for me and my children I know our days would not be as great without our dogs, Boy and Belle. Pets make all the difference in the world. There are many benefits to sharing our lives with them. Service dogs for kids with autism are sent from heaven. Therapy dogs help teach new skills and provide a bonding experience that sometimes is on a deeper level than with any other person. Then there are our family pets and the endless number of benefits they offer us throughout our lives.
Benefits of Pets for Autistic Kids
Not a lot of research has been conducted on the effects of the pet/autistic child relationship, but from what we do know, the results are impressive. Research aside, what I see as a mother is nothing short of inspiring. We all know that social moments can be a struggle for our children. Taking a dog on a walk through the neighborhood or a park can allow for social interaction and a great time to work on conversational skills with others doing the same. Sometimes, the door to a conversation can be opened merely by asking a pet walker the breed of his/her dog. Or, if your child does trick training with the family dog, then this is a great time to demonstrate. One of my favorite books on trick training is 101 Dog Tricks Kids Edition by Kyra Sundance.
Another great lesson with pets for our children is working on grooming and handling skills as this will allow for sensory integration. My kids have learned how to be gentle by petting Boy and Belle. When I teach my boys to use a gentle touch with our dogs, I place my hand over theirs and show them how much the dog enjoys it when they pet just so, stroking with the hair, and in a particular area.
I do the same when I show them how to brush Boy and Belle. Because my kids are not always the most gentle as they are learning, I use a Kong brush, specially-designed with rubber as to not hurt the dog if too much pressure is applied.
I have also found Carol Gray’s book The New Social Story Book helpful in teaching my children to understand our pet’s likes and dislikes. Though she uses the example of a cat, the principle is the same whether cat or dog:
“I have a cat. Many people like cats. Usually my cat likes to be petted. Cats feel soft. Cats purr when they are happy. When I pet my cat, it may make me happy, too. It may be fun to pet a cat. (p 19)”
Because I have two children, petting one at a time can allow for opportunities to learn share taking and the discussion before/after allow for a time to build language skills.
Because I am currently working with my kids on the need to respect personal space, I have a wonderful opportunity to encourage them to practice this skill with Boy. Dogs like space, and we practice by walking around the dogs and not intruding on their space.
When doing activities such as these with pets and kids, it’s always important to keep your dog’s comfort level in mind, making sure you remove your dog after a quick, successful session before any “challenging” behaviors occur. Watch for signs of stress from your dog, and provide lots of praise and rewards for both pet and child.
Aside from the obvious benefits of pets to the lives of autistic children—or any children for that matter—there are obvious benefits to the parents as well. At the end of every day, some more challenging than others, Miss Belle does her impressive circling tail wag and looks up at me. She seems to be just checking in on me like, “You doing okay, Michelle?” Sometimes I am not, and her eyes tell me she knows. Then, I stroke her soft fur, just so, in the way that I have taught my children. Thank God for pets and their remarkable ability to make our lives whole and complete and for the therapeutic benefits they offer to all of us.
Michelle Huntting has quickly become a recognized name in the training and publishing worlds. Many years of first-hand experience and research have gone into her books. Firmly established for nearly a decade in the training world, Huntting owns a training business in Texas and is the founder of the post-secondary school, Kenyon Canine Institute. Most recently Michelle hosts a pet talk radio show in the Dallas.
This article was featured in Issue 38 – Keeping ASD Kids Healthy