Connor speaks with dogs.
And I don’t mean that metaphorically. I don’t mean he’s some kind of dog whisperer or emerging animal shaman. His love for animals may one day translate into the ability to understand and speak to them on a more metaphysical level, but that’s currently not the case.
What I mean is my son quite literally speaks with my dogs. My autistic child who has a hard time making eye contact, answering questions when asked directly, or making any kind of conversation with another human being, has absolutely no trouble talking to animals. I think I should say Connor actually talks AT them.
Some mornings will wake up, see me and smile but say nothing. Other mornings he may see me and cry that he has to be awake. If I want a greeting I have to prompt him, saying “Say Hi Mommy” or “Connor, say Good Morning Mommy”. If I’m lucky Connor will repeat the phrase I’ve asked him to say. If I’m not he’ll ignore me or try to push me away from him. It’s 50-50 which way it’ll go on any given day.
But give Connor a chance to sit down with the dogs and he will spontaneously speak to them! He awoke the other morning, rolled over to see Dodger lying at his feet and said with a big grin “Good morning Dodger!”
I was flabbergasted! What just happened?!? Connor just used spontaneous language…to greet our dog. Great! Well, sort of great! It would be nice if he would speak to a human being but I guess this is a start. So I’ll take it.
Greetings are a pleasantry in conversation, not a necessity. They serve no purpose other than to socialize or start a conversation. They don’t convey any information or meet any actual needs. But they are vital to how we humans connect to each other. Given this, it’s something we’ve been working on to help Connor socialize appropriately. I ask him to say hi to people when they enter a room or goodbye when they leave. I ask him to acknowledge someone’s greeting to him with a greeting of his own. It’s something that comes naturally to many, maybe even most, of us. We take it for granted that this is the appropriate thing to do. For many autistic children it is not instinct to acknowledge someone verbally. He sees you, you see him, why state the obvious?
Even if Connor never actually means any of the pleasantries he speaks, it’ll be a step to building interpersonal relationships, something so many autistic children struggle with.
Along these same lines, people often ask each other how they are without actually meaning it. And in response people give rote answers without meaning. “How are you?” “I’m fine.” Just another pleasantry, another version of greeting, another call and response.
Connor has been practicing these types of pleasantries on the dogs.
He’ll sit down in front of Penny, making eye contact and begin.
“Hi Penny. How are you doing?”
Connor even uses the correct inflection and tilts his head to the side to indicate he’s listening (this last bit being something he may have picked up from the dogs).
He’ll wait a beat and say “Huh?” or “Hmm?” As if the dogs actually replied and he just didn’t catch it.
Sometimes the conversation ends there, other times he’ll carry on, asking a series of questions:
“Do you want to go for a ride?”
“Do you want to go to the park?
“Do you want a treat?”
It’s truly bizarre, heartwarming, and confusing to watch.
Connor will rarely string together a sentence when asking me for something he wants, needing to be constantly reminded or prompted to use three to four word phrases rather than just repeating the name of object he desires over and over again.
And if you, as a human being, ask Connor one of those questions above you’ll be lucky to get a response. And if you do get a response it may be incongruous with the questions. “How are you?” can be answered with “I’m three!” Sometimes responses are merely a repetition of the last word he hears. “Do you want to go to the park” is often answered by “park?” You’ll have to repeat that question, first asking him to look at you, to get a yes or no answer.
My theory on why talking to the dogs is so much easier for Connor is that they don’t have any expectations of him. They’re not going to answer his questions or greetings with anything other than a lick, and perhaps that kind of positive reinforcement is what keeps Connor talking to them.
We (me, his therapists, teachers, family members, etc.) all expect Connor to speak to us when we speak to him. He expect him to behave according to a set of rules which seem completely foreign to him. He’s learning these rules, slowly, but in the mean time it’s still a struggle to conduct himself within their framework.
Interacting with the dogs happens on his own terms, at his own pace, without any pressure. They place no demands on him, harbor no frustration, and meet every thing he does with love and affection.
I’m not familiar with all the research that has been done on the relationships between autistic children and animals. I’m only truly familiar with The Horse Boy Foundation. This group focuses on the relaxed atmosphere that can be developed by working with autistic children while engaged in horse care and riding.
Temple Grandin, a well-known adult with autism and pioneer in the field of autism activism, relates that autism and animals in several of her papers (examples here and here). She asserts that the animal experience, which is based on senses and images, is similar to the autistic experience, which often relies on the same constructs, using language as a secondary resource.
More research is being done in the field of animal assisted therapy but it seems to me that this could potentially be an area of growth for children with ASD. Animals are being used in so many other areas of mental health and intellectual growth that I truly hope some recognized animal assisted therapy can be developed for autism.
Here are some interesting programs about animals helping humans:
Though never enrolled in a program or even vaguely aware that such programs exist, Connor seems to have created a therapy program for himself. These dogs offer him the opportunity to practice his language and social interaction without the pressure of society. It’s truly inspiring to see him speak to my dogs. When I see Connor speak to them as if he was speaking to a person, it gives me hope that someday our four-legged furry friends will be replaced by friends of the two-legged variety.