Monday, 11 June 2012

Autism and Animals

Many people with Autism, especially girls, seem to love animals.  There is no peer-reviewed scientific research on autism and animals, but many autistics seem to have a special bond with them.  That is not to say every person with Autism likes animals--some  get sensory overload from the smell, noise, or even feel of them, but in general, most people with autism have a special affinity for animals of all kinds.

I had many pets over the years.  I started with a turtle in a bowl when I was little but we didn't know how to take care of it properly back then.   Through the years I have had gerbils, hamsters, guinea pigs, rabbits, dogs, cats, birds, fish, a lizard and a tortoise.  Currently I have two dogs, two cats, three birds, fish and a tortoise.
Many families report that their loved ones with an autism diagnosis seem more relaxed around their dogs or cats.  This can be true whether they are petting them, talking to them or just keeping them company.   As well as providing companionship, animals can provide great sensory input.  You can touch them, smell them, hear them, and some might even lick them!  Cats and especially larger dogs can provide deep pressure by leaning or laying on you. 

I find animals help with my anxiety.  When I have a warm, furry animal to pet, I can put most of my focus on that and concentrate better on what I'm supposed to be doing or paying attention to.  My mind doesn't stray toward thinking of all the things around that I sometimes find frightening--like other people who I don't know well. 

My daughter and I shared a service dog and I took him with me to my parent support group meetings.  He helped lessen my anxiety.  I could look at him and pet him instead of wondering where to look or fidgeting with my hands.  He was also good for me socially at the meetings because people would talk to me about him.  He was a boxer so he had a snoring problem and a gas problem!  People still remember and ask about him years later!
Sea World was very welcoming.
Dexter even got a bandana and
water bottle/dish just for him!

Animals are great friends; you can talk to them and they will listen and not judge you.   You can tell your secrets to them and not have them repeated ('though I guess you would have to be more careful with a parrot who is a really good imitator!
In some families, the person with autism and their pet will bond because the person takes care of it- feeding it, brushing it, and playing with it.  It may be the person's only friend and provides them with someone to be responsible for.   No verbal language or people social skills are needed to interact with an animal.  It doesn’t take much to make them happy and you don’t have to read facial expressions!

Animals, especially dogs, are pretty good at demanding attention and interaction from us.  Dogs do not judge how well you throw a ball or Frisbee.  They're just happy to chase it.
I had a bond with the school horse I used to ride.  I enjoyed riding him, so I asked to ride him regularly in my lesson.  It was allowed and we got to know each other well, even though I only rode him once each week.  I fed him peppermints and talked to him while I groomed him.  I could tell that he liked me (the mints helped of course!) by the way he acted around me.  He and I did a lot of practicing my first Para-dressage test even though I would not be riding him for it.  He was the first horse I ever bonded with, and I was devastated when he had to be put down.  I have tried to not become attached to the one I am riding now but it is hard not to develop a deep relationship with these animals.

In her notes on nursing in 1860, Florence Nightingale, the founder of modern nursing wrote, “A small pet animal is often an excellent companion for the sick, for long chronic cases especially.  A pet bird in a cage is sometimes the only pleasure of an invalid confined for years to the same room.  If he can feed and clean animal himself, he ought always to be encouraged to do so.”
In her book “Animals in Translation”, Temple Grandin states that animals and people with Autism both think by making visual associations, we both fear high pitched noises, and both have emotions that are simpler like those of a watchful prey animal.

The statements by Temple Grandin could explain the reasons why so many people with Autism love animals.  We understand them and they understand us!

Thursday, 7 June 2012

You Can Tell You Are In An Autistic's Home When....

We live in a nice home on the edge of town. From the curb, you would never guess that inside the bricks and mortar is a family of three Autistics.  But as you walk a little closer toward the front door, the clues begin to surface.  Once you’re inside, there’s no doubt!  So what are those clues?

You can tell you are about to walk into an autistic's home when you see the autism sticker on the front porch window proclaiming that the person inside may be non-verbal.   You may hear loud voices, screaming, or running and jumping but that is just a normal day in our home.  My husband, daughter, and I are all on the autism spectrum and therefore we can have total chaos. While this can be common in busy families, their times of chaos could be compared to a storm; on the other hand, ours are more like a hurricane. 

You can tell you are in an autistic's home when you see a menagerie of animals.   Our family enjoys our little friends.  Those friends include two Cardigan Welsh Corgi dogs, two cats, three birds, a Russian tortoise, and several fish. The appeal of animals to people on the spectrum makes perfect sense:  we don’t have to worry about what they think of us and they put up with our unusual behaviours and verbal stims.   I guess you could say that our animals are a joint family interest.

Jade and Buddy


You can tell you are in an autistic's home when you see the disorder that comes from executive dysfunction.  This means a disability in those neurological functions related to planning, organizing, prioritizing, initiating, and remembering. There are the piles of treasures, piles of papers, and other bits and pieces that may actually have a home on a shelf somewhere but someone has to be able to actually start the job (preferably with the assistance of the rest of the family) which is hard. 

We have to be able to analyze what we have to do, put a plan in place, organize the steps we will take, develop a timeline to complete our task, be able to adjust the steps if necessary, and then complete it on time.  Tidying the house may come naturally to many people and I had no problem keeping my own bedroom tidy when I lived at home but now I have a two-story, three bedroom house with two other people to work with. 

Even if I manage to start and complete one area, by the time I am part way through the next area, the original area is piling up again.  I read a great book, “Life and Love: Positive Strategies for Autistic Adults” by Zosia Zaks and the author recommended putting up sticky notes around the house for reminders of where things go.  Unfortunately that executive dysfunction has gotten in the way again and I haven’t done it yet!

You can tell you are in an autistic's home when you see one person tapping away, another verbally stimming, and yet another deeply involved in pursuing their obsession.  Stimming is a repetitive movement that self stimulates one or more senses in a regulated manner. The three of us have various stims and since we are all autistic, you would think we would be understanding of each other’s stims.  Not so!  We all get on each other’s nerves regularly.

You can tell you are in an autistic's home when you see a swing hanging in the living room, a mini trampoline nearby and various sizes of exercise balls and ride on bouncy toys scattered around.  On top of all that, there are the bins of fidget and sensory toys, games for fine motor practice and large collections of horse toys (an important  interest of my daughter).

As you can imagine our home is anything but typical.  From the autism sticker to the menagerie of animals, the stims to various objects of special interest, Autism is a big part of my family’s environment. And you know what?  I wouldn’t have it any other way.  Our home may be a bit unusual and may not be a tidy showpiece but we are all very comfortable in it and I think our visitors are too.