For many people on the autism spectrum, relating to people poses multiple challenges. For animals, however, these same people often have an affinity. What’s more, many of these animals know this intuitively and are very accepting of people on the spectrum. In her groundbreaking book Animals in Translation, Temple Grandin spoke of the close connection between animals and people with autism, like herself. She spoke of the ways in which animals see the world “in pictures,” with much greater attention to detail than neurotypical people, but in ways similar to which she sees the world. She also wrote of the close connections many people with autism have with animals and their abilities to “read one another.”
One UK mother of a young woman with Asperger’s syndrome, wrote of her daughter’s deep fascination and deep, abiding love for all animals. These pets offered great comfort, nonjudgmental companions in whom to confide. She quotes Tony Attwood, in his introduction to one of Liane Holliday Willey’s books: “Another escape is into the exciting world of nature, having an intuitive understanding of animals, not people. Animals become loyal friends, eager to see and be with you, with her feeling safe from being teased or rejected and appreciated by her animal friends.”
Temple Grandin is most well known for her work with cattle. Another person with Asperger’s, Josh Flannagan, found his calling with another large animal, horses. Offered a job at a horse ranch, Josh immediately bonded with the animals. “He changed so much through them,” says his mentor, Pete. “He commutes with the horses better than I do.” By being able to offer the horses comfort, Josh has been able to help himself become less stressed around the client riders. He has earned the title “Horse Whisperer.”
Horses are at the heart of equine therapy, whereby children and adults with physical, cognitive, and emotional disabilities benefit from riding horses. For now, we will consider how a child with autism can benefit from equine therapy. By interacting with the horse and caring for it, the child with autism forms an emotional bridge, which extends to enhanced social and communication skills with humans. Riding the horse gives the autistic child educational experience with learning how to understand and follow directions. The gait of the horse enhances the spatial orientation abilities of the child with autism; the horse becomes a trusted friend and teacher.
Working with animals is an excellent avocation for a child or an adult with autism or Asperger’s syndrome, one in which he or she can excel, to the mutual benefit of both parties.
A Brief Afterword on Service Dogs
Dogs are the most popular and common animal for children with autism. They can be pets of therapy (or service) dogs. A service dog has been professionally trained to help a person with a disability. Guide dogs help the blind and hearing dogs help the deaf or hard of hearing; these animals are beyond the scope of this column and will be covered in a later blog. Service dogs, on the other hand, perform more of a psychological role. Under the Americans with Disabilities Act, owners and service dogs cannot be denied access to places of public accommodation. There is a story of boy with autism who fell in love with a German shepherd at a shelter. With most people, the dog’s behavior left much to be desired, but with the boy he was entirely different. The dog received proper professional training to be certified as a service dog. Obtaining a suitable service dog requires diligent research; for one, the trainer should be a member of Assistance Dogs International, which sets high, internationally recognized standards for service dog training. The International Association of Assistance Dog Partners assists people using such dogs, as does 4 Paws for Ability. And worthy of note is one UK group, PAWS, which unites dogs in shelters and children with autism, recognizing the mutually beneficial relationship. They note, however, that these animals are not service dogs, which provide specific therapy and to not enjoy full access to places of public accommodation.