A Story of an Elephant with Big Ears… and a Big Heart

Some two and a half years ago, maybe longer, I was listening to Jonathan Schwartz’s radio show on NPR. After playing his customary songs from the American song book, Jonathan gave a rave review of a children’s book he just read. As a love of animals is something we both share, I had to read the book. I am glad I did.

Most of the people with autism and some with Down syndrome, likewise have an affinity to animals… and vice versa. This review is dedicated to them.


butterfly_lg“My, what big ears he has!” A little elephant was born in southern Africa. However, not long thereafter, the peace of that happy occasion was shattered by a sudden flash and a bang. Poachers claimed the little elephant’s mother.  A twelve-year-old boy named Thabo watched a rescue helicopter bring in a baby elephant to the wildlife refuge, where he lives. The veterinarian, Bitri, will try his best to save her. Thabo was there to comfort the baby elephant with big, spread-out ears he has decided to call Butterfly.

Four years later and half a world away, Emma was enjoying the splendors of her New York City courtyard garden, when a tall teenage boy approached her. Thabo introduced himself and explained that he was there with his father, who was giving a speech at the United Nations to urge world leaders to help his country’s endangered elephants. Emma was astonished; she didn’t realize that such big, strong animals needed protection. It was then that she learned about poachers killing elephants for their tusks for the illegal ivory trade. She removed the ivory butterfly necklace pendant she received for her 11th birthday. (The coincidences here will have some readers wondering if the ivory from her pendant came from Butterfly’s mother; at the very least, the metaphor is very strong.) She loved the picture of Butterfly Thabo showed her, which she thought of as she returned the pendant to its velvet box and hid it in a dark drawer. That night, Emma dreamed of a parade of animals.

Suddenly, Emma was aroused by a loud trumpeting sound.  Outside her window was Butterfly, looking for Thabo. Hearing the noise, Thabo rushed to her side. Butterfly spoke to both teens of her fear of Africa and was seeking a safe place. But what to do with an elephant in the city? After all, an adult elephant would need some 320 pounds of plant material and 30 gallons of water every day. The seemingly obvious first choice was the circus! All three were excited as they watched the pageantry, especially the regal elephants. After the show, Butterfly met up with the circus elephants. Butterfly and her human companions quickly learned—along with the reader%mdash;that many circus elephants are taken from the wild and poorly treated. Later that night, Emma learned that the keys of her baby grand piano were made from ivory. Emma was left wondering whether the Bach prelude she was playing would be able to “heal the aching heart of a baby elephant.”


Autism and Animals: A Close Bond of Mutual Understanding

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.  Pot-Bellied PigletThese 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.  Shetland Pony - Popcorn Park ZooBy 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.