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Animal Behavior & Autism: A New Perspective

Posted by Jennifer McCarthy on September 3, 2010 in Arizona, Speak! Archive

I feel so blessed to be a part of a young man’s life who, at age 11, happens to be autistic. Autism doesn’t define Culley, rather he’d like to tell you that he’s passionate about his lego collection, loves to play games and is great at repeating any commercial he sees, one time, from start to finish. He is compassionate, caring, funny, intelligent and is on his way to greatness.
Although autism is a spectrum disorder, I have had the amazing opportunity to try what I know from animals to break into his world. So far, it seems to be working.
I’m by no means a therapist or an expert on autism but someone who has seen animals overcome all the odds from tremendous fear to debilitating stories of abuse, neglect and the list goes on.
These non-human animals suffer in a world we can’t even imagine. They can’t talk, they can’t express their feelings. It is only through acting out, acting scared or simply breaking down to not exist in this world any more that we may pay attention.
Culley is a brave soul and has to face his fears daily. What may be an easy and fun trip to see a movie, is torture to him-the loud noise, the anxiety of the darkness, just the thought of attempting to go to the movie theatre is met by anger, fear, tantrums and even tears.
With no skills to fall back on, I can only rely on what I know from domestic creatures and what they have so graciously taught me.
Lately, I’ve found that these skills not only work for Culley’s case but he is doing things with a greater ease and less fear.
These are some of the techniques that can be translated from dogs, wolves & horses to humans with the disorder as well as there are also things I’ve brought from the autism community to suffering animals.
1) No rules apply. Each person is individual and you must be creative in finding what works so long as that doesn’t injure, harm, etc.
2) Use lots of enthusiasm! I would rather see 15 minuets of intensity, enjoyment and praise when owners practice with their dogs than an hour of not being fully present in the interactions.
3) Break it up in small steps for rewards. Instead of training a dog for a movie to jump out of a car, retrieve a newspaper and sit on a park bench, you would break each of these things up into smaller steps for rewards. At the end, give a big reward and lots of excitement, praise, etc!
4) Allow the ability to make decisions. It’s Culley’s choice if he wants to get in the car to drive to the movie theatre or not. If he does, he gets a star. If he passes, I get to try instead which would allow me to have the possibility to obtain a star. The first one to 10 stars wins and gets a new lego toy! He always has the opportunity to make a good decision such as other animals do in facing their fears.
5) Create space. The more physical space for someone to move around and breathe, the better. Often feeling “caged in” and triggered by space, animals get a sense of relief from a larger area. When I say “animals” I am referring to non-humans however, we must not forget that we are ALL animals-not greater nor less than any another species.
6) Always be calm and patient. The art of healing is time. I don’t wear a watch when I spend time with a dog who is suffering or fearful. Don’t try to “make” an autistic person do anything they don’t want to do.Have patience and the mind set that you have all the time in the world to go through a tantrum for the person to get another chance at whatever is difficult. Stay with them through the experience but don’t leave until they can get to the other side. Always leave when the person is calm. Don’t reward the meltdown by leaving.
7) Using meditation or a form of spirituality and exercise is key to coming in on a grounded, calm level. You must always be present in you first to allow a person or animal to heal and grow.
8) Lights, noise and extra sensory perception may be high in dogs and in autism cases-as dogs have much more developed hearing than we do. Consider using headphones, etc., to help with these outside obstacles.
9) Establish boundaries and rules to create a secure environment based on leadership, friendship, love and trust.
10) Allow non-humans to teach where you cannot. Horses are amazing healers and dogs provide reduced heart rates, security and unconditional love. Chose a calm breed such as a mellow Golden Retriever. Encourage animal interaction as much as possible as animals feel more acutely in extra-sensory areas, this gift can allow the right dog to break through to your child where you cannot. In later years, walking the dog and becoming more active around an animal builds confidence, trust and stability that everything is going to be all right.
As time goes on, I will be posting more information on the subject as I enjoy more interactions hanging out with the fastest lego builder in the West and my new, amazing friend-Culley. I’m so grateful for all he is teaching me and look forward to many more accomplishments and fun days to come!

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