BRAWD AUTISTICO "Can Animals Tell?"
TWO BOYS stand before an assortment of glass tanks and plastic vivariums, each one home to a different species of creepy crawly. The largest is reserved for two basking corn snakes, and the others house a loud-mouthed, tiny green tree frog, a seething scorpion, a living statue of a tarantula and a dim-witted salamander, its eyes blank and lacking intelligence, with a big, dim grin to compliment. The eldest of the two brothers seductively wiggles his forefinger at it, teasing it as it smacks its face against the invisible wall in an attempt to bite him, tongue sticking to the plastic in the process.
“Be di hwn, ta?” he asks his younger brother.
“Sa-la-man-DA!” he replies in a way that suggests this question is part of an act or routine of some sorts, and that he’s trying to remember his lines.
“Aye! Da iawn, met!” his brother chuckles proudly.
He picks up the goofy-looking amphibian’s tank and places it on the carpeted floor. His brother watches him cautiously for a moment, then mimics his actions, sitting cross-legged on the mat as his big brother opens the tank, reaches in and takes out the writhing creature. It jerks its body from side to side, desperate to bite its attacker. Then he places the newt-like animal on the mat and goes about putting fresh water and moss into its tank. The youngest of the pair takes little interest in the creature as it casually makes its way across the mat- he is far more interested in gnawing at his nails.
His brother goes through the motions as he cleans the salamander’s tank, asking him what each item is before putting it away. When he’s done, he gestures one last time to the salamander and asks his brother: “Be dio…?”
The starving amphibian clamps its toothless mouth around his forefinger and doesn’t let go, its expressionless eyes staring blankly in both directions as it does so. In a panic, the young boy shakes his hand as violently as he can, yet it still manages to cling on. His older brother bursts out laughing, holding his belly and falling backward as his sibling frantically tries to free himself.
At last, it loses its grip and flies into the air then hits the mat with a heavy thud, landing on its back before promptly rolling itself onto its feet. The older brother pauses to check if it’s alright. When it licks its mouth and starts waddling around with its usual gormless smile, he looks over at his brother, who in turn is staring down at the amphibian, panting heavily, but with a smile of relief on his face.
He looks over at his older brother. They freeze for a moment, then burst out laughing together.
“Can animals tell?” is something I have been asked numerous times by curious friends and family. If not that, then something along the lines of “…have you tried getting him a service dog or taking him swimming with dolphins? Do you take him to the riding stables? Ever thought of getting a parrot?!”
What usually follows is an anecdote about how their grandmother’s dog knew about the cancer, or about a Channel 4 documentary they saw about a boy and his four-legged best friend. The debate of whether or not animals can “tell” when a person is neuro-typical or not has gone on for a while now, and a lot of people these days are talking about animal therapy for people on the spectrum, with a lot of evidence to suggest that it can be very effective…
I discussed in my previous post how autism cannot be ‘cured’, but how there are various forms of therapy available to perhaps ‘alleviate’ some of the ‘core’ and ‘co-morbid' (related) symptoms of autism. That is to say, studies show that animal therapy can help people on the spectrum reduce their anxiety levels, thus making them calmer in social situations and more focused, which in turn helps them communicate better, with one study even suggesting that autistic people smile more when they are around animals. One should also consider the social aspect of becoming an ‘animal lover’, with autistic people able to join communities and societies such as horse-riding or dog-walking clubs, and so forth.
The main benefits of animal therapy are that it’s relatively cheap and low-risk, in that it involves people’s pets or animals in zoos, shelters and various centres, with the clients either visiting them, or vice versa. It also works well with people of all ages from across the spectrum and comes in a variety of different forms:
1. Service animals, like guide dogs and such
2. Therapy animals, which consist of all manner of species, whereby an individual learns about and interacts with the animal
3. Emotional Support animals, such as dogs trained to react when a person on the spectrum is having a sensory overload or emotional outburst
4. Pets, whereby as well being provided a bit of company, the individual learns to care for an animal and provide support to something other than themselves, thus building their self-esteem and sense of self-worth
5. Hippotherapy, which, sadly, involves horses, not hippos
But which animals are best suited for therapy? When considering my brother, at least, it clearly wouldn't be a salamander…
Indeed, although amphibians, reptiles, fish, birds and even insects can have some calming effects one some people, or at least be of interest to them, it is mainly mammals that are used in animal therapy, though I have seen autistic children interact positively with various creepy crawlies before, when I worked in a primary school for autistic children in Cardiff and a local reptile centre brought in a few of their residents to show us. I can’t say the effect was that of a ‘calming’ nature, but I saw a few smiles, at least!
The big one that most people think of is dolphins, but evidence suggests that, although the experience may be beneficial for the individual, the dolphins themselves find the encounter all very stressful, which has led people to speak out against their use in therapy.
And I don’t blame the dolphins, if my own brother’s encounters with animals are anything to go by, for no scaly, winged, horned, furry nor woolly creature of any kind is safe from him, nor he from them, in all fairness to him!
It all began with birds, back when he was but a young boy… I remember being at a zoo and him putting his face near the fencing to an African crane’s enclosure and it pecking him right on the nose.
Another time, we were at a busy lake somewhere- people were wearing caps and shorts and the weather was lovely. I was very young, but I recall seeing, out of nowhere, an incredibly large swan rearing its neck and flapping its wings menacingly, chest puffed out as though he was ready for a fight. My brother was but a tiny little thing before it, just standing there, frozen solid save for his hands, which he waved from side to side at incredible speed. Then the feathered beast reared its neck even higher before slamming its beak on the top of my brother’s head, clamping shut so as to catch a clump of his cute, light-brown curls, then reared back up again. I was in such a state of shock that I, too, just stood there and helplessly watched. Then, from out of nowhere, a stranger leapt to his rescue and carried him away in his arms, handing him over to my parents as they came running over.
And then there was the duck incident. We were on a family camping trip, one of many, and my brother and I were feeding a family of ducks we had seen nearby. The little ducklings all splashed and fluttered their wings with joy. My brother, too, seemed happy, skipping, jumping and flapping his arms as he smiled and hummed joyfully to himself. Then he got a bit too close for the duck parents’ comfort, and the pair of them quacked furiously at him and charged, beaks pointing directly at him, long necks extended, wings flapping like mad.
My brother turned and ran, but the ducks clipped onto the backs of his jelly shoes (who remembers them?!) and clung on for dear life as my brother ran and screamed, kicking his legs in a desperate attempt to shake them off.
Perhaps it was these early interactions with Mother Nature that turned my brother when it came to animals, and somewhat extinguished his sense of wonder and curiosity. You see, for a long time after that, my brother adopted a more aggressive approach when it came to animals…
That all started with our pet goldfish. My brother took to reaching his hand into their tank and crushing them with the little stone castle whenever no one was watching. One miraculously survived for years after- a proper hard nut, with the scars to prove it!
Whenever we went over to our cousins’ house, who had a pet hamster, he would stand and wait for the little thing to reach the top of its ladder then blow as hard as he could in its face, sending it rolling back down the ladder again. He’d rub his hands together and giggle with glee as the poor thing tumbled and fell.
When my parents took us to a Welsh agricultural show, he stood and stared at an angry-looking ram in a cage and boldly stuck his finger right up its nostril. The ram huffed and puffed as it struggled to get the painful, foreign object out. When he did manage to get free, he bashed the cage with his horns, but my brother just stared back at him, watching him sniff and sneeze uncontrollably.
Today, whenever he hears the buzzing of a flying insect, he grabs a tea-towel and goes on a killing spree, though he’s wise enough not to mess around with bees or wasps… and he isn’t gentle about it, either- my parents always fret that one day his hand will go straight through one of the windows (a fear that stems from an incident in which he punched through one in anger at my grandparents’ house, which I shall tell you about another time).
And then there’s cats. Oh, my… have you ever seen The Mummy with Brendan Fraser? Remember how the mummy reacted whenever he saw a cat? That’s what my brother’s like! I remember going for a walk with him and pointing one out to him when we were young; “Be dio?”
He raised his hand to tell me what it was then went “CA-AAAARGH!” and slowly backed away, his trembling finger still pointing at the placid feline, who looked back at him with eyes half-shut.
I remember how he used to leg it from the car into my grandmother’s house whenever we visited her, frantically scanning the walls and the alleyways for cats. As an adult, he stayed over at mine and my girlfriend at the time’s place. We tried our best to hide the kitten we had from him until we could get rid of it for the weekend, but at one point, he got into the room where it had been locked inside of and lay down, with no idea there was a curious kitten lurking underneath the bed. Luckily, I got there in time and enticed him to watch some telly downstairs.
But an hour or so later, as we entertained my parents in the kitchen, the cat managed to get out of the room and make its way downstairs into the living room. When I eventually went to check on my brother, I found the kitten sitting neatly where he had previously been lounging on the sofa, and him sitting on the edge of the coffee table, remote in his hand, nervously checking over his shoulder.
We can only assume that a cat either jumped out and scared him at our grandmother’s house, or bit or scratched him at one point, but my brother’s fear and loathing of cats is deeply-ingrained.
Miraculously, he never went for any of the exotic pets we had, such as Ned, the salamander that bit him- he just didn’t show much interest in them. But, as time went by, he did grow affectionate towards some animals…
The first was probably Meg, our grandparents’ New Zealand sheepdog. Taid had bought her down the local pub one evening, much to Nain’s distress. But Meg grew to become a much-loved member of the family, and she had a special relationship with my brother. Meg was a very excitable dog, and she loved us children. But around my brother, she would calm herself down and approach him slowly and calmly, offering her head to him, and he would gently pat her in return, often with just the tips of his fingers. She would look at my brother differently to how she looked at the rest of us- she seemed more alert, less frantic and clingy and more caring and attentive to her actions…
He also grew fond of elephants and rhinos, particularly the latter. He is equally fascinated by dinosaurs- perhaps the big, bulky beasts remind him of those...? My parents take him to the zoo at least once a year, and every time he goes, it is the rhinos that he stands by, smiles at and loves the most. Just don’t mention the chimpanzee house, butterfly house nor the bat cave. Seriously- we’ve had some huge meltdowns outside those places!
My brother also seemed to enjoy going horse-riding outside of school time. Once a week, my parents would take him down the local stables and he would ride and command the horses with a handful of learned sounds and words. “WHOAAAAH!” he would bellow out.
He could name all the other horses there, as well, and never kicked up a fuss about going. Nor of missing any sessions either, really- unlike many people on the spectrum, my brother doesn’t seem that bothered by sticking to a routine… well, not when it doesn’t involve the TV Guide, that is!
But remember that animal therapy isn’t restricted to people on the spectrum by far- just think how many people have pets or enjoy going to the zoo and so on! Human beings have always had a close connection with animals- for many, an affectionate one, and for others, bloody and violent, but animals have had a crucial role in human society and development for centuries, and we all share some kind of emotional bond with another species.
If you think that you or anyone else could benefit from having some form of animal therapy, have a look online about services in your local area- there’s lots out there, and you can always ask a rescue centre yourself!
Just remember that, much like neuro-typicals, people on the spectrum all have their own personalities and preferences. This is why a person-centred approach is so important in care, and why it is good to remember that there isn't one type of therapy that works for everyone, and that includes the dolphins!
I’m interested to know if anyone out there has been, or still is, involved in animal therapy of some kind. Has anyone got any experiences of animal therapy that they would like to share, or similar funny encounters involving an autistic friend or family member?
Thanks for reading.