How A Dog Can Be Therapeutic For Kids With Autism
We live with autism and that’s the way it is. Period. Mind you, everyone’s journey with autism is specific to their household dynamics. Just as crucial what is true of one families’ experience isn’t necessarily germane to anyone else’s reality. But I can tell you this: a little black, white and brindle Boston Terrier named Goku has made our home a much happier place to be.
A little back story is in order here
Our twins were diagnosed with low-mild functioning autism around the age of 3. And like most families learning of an autism diagnosis it was a considerable blow on so many levels. We dealt with a wide range of emotions; we were hurt, numbly confused and above all angry and scared out of our disbelieving minds. We responded in so many ways, all at once. We shut down parts of ourselves only to kick open the doors to rooms we never even know we had. We took to the internet and devoured tons of information like professional researchers. We asked our pediatrician innumerable questions, to their chagrin I reflectively suspect.
Surely there were missteps aplenty and frustration off the Richter scale. But there was also a lot of successes along the way too. But in the end there was also our constant belief that things would get better. Yes, there was hope. Hope in the shape and form of two little smart, handsome and at times quirky boys. Even in the midst of what seemed like complete and utter maddening madness, at the end of the day our kids were our kids and we love them dearly.
[Tweet “Yes, believe it or not autism makes you a better parent.”]
Yes, believe it or not autism makes you a better parent
Yes, it is a humbling thing to admit, but having children on the spectrum makes you much more in tune to your kid’s needs, you have to be. Your needs? Not so much. And in ways you are beaten (out of necessity and survival) into becoming the better parent you have to be. Why? Well, because now your life demands it. Being parents of children with autism forces you to think, re-think, learn, un-learn and prepare in ways parents of neuro-typical children never have to consider. It forced us to become better advocates for our boys, simply because if we didn’t, who would? There was a time when one of our twins was non-verbal and that meant we had to be doubly attentive. Because only by close observation were we able to discern his needs and gauge his moods. So yeah, raising children on the spectrum makes you kinda sorta super human and just a little bit badass. True story.
The other twin (they’re both on the spectrum, bless us please) used to work himself into such a state he would rage violently. So out of our love and concern for him, his siblings and the world at large we learned (so not a 100% of the time) to unravel and correctly interpret his unspoken warning signs. His signs of exasperation, mounting anxiety and the “I’m about to blow my top” signs and signals. It became imperative to understand (or at least try to) what situations or triggers were likely to set him off. It was like trying to discover how to stop a pot already set to boil. And so we had to help keep him safe from his own internal wiring. We also had to become detectives, we’re talking Law & Order: Special Victims Unit caliber here, in that we had to stay vigilant in order to spot, diagnose, de-escalate or remove potential irritants or stressful situations in order to keep him calm and us level-headed.
Parents of children with autism have to literally lose their minds to find themselves
Call it the “autism trial by hellfire” effect. Yes, how many tears did we shed? Too many to count, oceans full if I had to posit an educated guess. The displaced and unnecessary guilt, how about that? How the mind melting caterwauling of an inconsolable child can slowly make a parent lose what was left of an already frayed mind. Why weren’t we warned about such nerve splitting horrors? Well, because nobody knew, that’s why. There was only an ultrasound tech when we found out we were pregnant with twins, perhaps we should have called for a crystal ball too. And how we constantly wounded ourselves over the fact that our children weren’t quote unquote “normal”. We read the books, therefore, we knew what a typical baby, toddler or child should be doing by such-an-such age. But the sting was, our children weren’t even close. Our boys were developmentally so far behind and we beat ourselves up over it endlessly and needlessly.
Although we probably would have tried a witch doctor in the end we didn’t have to
We got through it didn’t we? We are still going “through it,” aren’t we? Through all the specialist, the IEPs, the extra tutoring and therapy sessions, we are managing (understatement).
But then along came a little angel’s breath of a pup. A wee bit of black, white and brindled fur. A mewling saint on four tiny legs. St. Goku. Somewhere along the way (when the twins were 7 or 8ish) we had read about therapy dogs, and although buying our own therapy dog was financially unobtainable we did see how a dog might be a good choice. Our first attempt was a wonderful Labradoodle the boys named Jeffers (there’s a story in the name that’s worth retelling at some point, stay tuned). Jeffers was indeed a spectacular and special pooch. But due to me being away a lot for work and the dog’s large size conflicting we our limited space, we made a hard decision, and we found him a more suitable home. And there he is well cared for, but then, there was a hole in the hearts of our boys.
It seemed at first they were coping just fine without Jeffers. But eventually their despair manifested itself in their increased acting out in a myriad of ways: short tempers, more “episodes” and even lower school grades. Now, we’re realists and no, maybe every problem in the absence of Jeffers can be laid at the paws of his departure, but we honestly feel it played a significant role. Then in therapy they spilled the beans, the boys really missed their dog. Lots of tears again and lots of hugs as well. As parents we reassured and even offered our sincere apologies. And really, it was foolish of us (the parents) to think otherwise. Having our Labradoodle was a big help, he had become their dear friend and in so many ways he was a major coping mechanism, then we took him away. We had witnessed first hand the calming and soothing effects having this dog in our midst had made. Whenever our boys experienced bouts of anxiety or frustration, all it took to make things better, was some much-needed cuddle time with a golden colored fur ball. There was some transference of feeling going on and negative energy was whisked away like magic, we witnessed it with our own eyes on a daily basis.
Oh parents what folly we be, for we cannot see the forest at times for the nearest trees. We cannot see the sunlight, thou it shineth and blinds our blinking eyes.
And so the hunt for a better dog match ensued
After a while, we got ourselves in dog mode, once again searching the internet and asking friends and family for breed suggestions.
This time around we had a short list of requirements:
- An agreeable temperament.
- Minimal or non-shedding.
Looking for a dog is kind of like shopping for a car, you have to be realistic and practical. In short, you gotta know how much ‘DOG” you can afford. Can you put up with dog hair everywhere? Do you have enough space to accommodate a dog? Will you have the time to care properly for a high-energy dog? Is the breed easily trained? Although even within any particular breed there is variance. But, typically some breeds are just smarter than others. Eventually, we found a local kennel offering Boston Terriers, and after a bit of due diligence this breed had all the things we were looking for in our next dog. And we eventually brought one home for keeps. It’s been almost two years now and let me tell you, these boys of ours L-O-V-E this dog to pieces, and he loves them back. He was christened Goku, named after a popular Japanese anime character, or so we were told by our twins. We were dubious initially, because honestly we didn’t think we would find another “perfect’ canine match for our boys, but we did. And it is like this little bow-legged dog was custom-made just for us. He is small, which according to the boys only increases his cute factor. And Goku’s diminutive stature allows him to be cradled and cuddled for maximum effect. We have three boys, and each child must have Goku in their respective beds come bed time, and so Goku is on a once every three-night rotation. And even though the boys just about carry him everywhere, the dog doesn’t seem to mind. Having a kind, sweet and patient pet can positively change the emotional dynamics within the household for families with children or child on the spectrum, of that we can definitely attest.
A kind of therapy dog, who in the end is nothing but love wrapped up in fur and walks on four spindly legs
We want to make this clear; our Goku is not a certified or licensed therapy dog. A true therapy dog may run upwards of $35,000, and we don’t have Bill Gates money. However, I also want to make this abundantly clear too, having our little bundle of joy in our home works. It has made a tremendous difference, at least to two, now 12-year old boys on the spectrum. And with the love, support and endless encouragement of two doting parents (that’s us) they are finding their way in the world with man’s best friend curled up by their sides.