Autism and a Dog

 

For a person with autism, a dog can be a great way to teach friendship, empathy and responsibility.

Dixie the DogNow that Lucas' brother Robert has decided to stay in the Big City, Lucas has been kind of lonely.

My husband Alan and I noticed it at Easter, the first school break that Robert wasn't here for. Robert's absence was painfully obvious during those days; just the little stuff like Robert giving Lucas a quick tickle as he passed him, or tagging him with a "you're It", resulting in a sudden game of tag through the house.

Mealtime, too, was rather different without Robert here. Alan and I both realized just how much Lucas missed his "best friend" and big brother, and began to look seriously at how best to give Lucas a friend. After all, while Robert will always be a part of Lucas' life, he does have his own to live, and may not be living with Lucas again for a very long time.

Autism and a dog can make a beautiful team.

Lucas has always loved "puppy dawgs", as he calls them, calling attention to them whenever he sees one on the street or in a car. So we began to consider the idea of autism and a dog.

When considering the idea of Lucas' autism and a dog, the first thing we had to decide was, "Is Lucas able to understand the idea of a dog being another living thing that needs proper treatment and attention (not always an easy task for an autistic child)?"

Some other considerations we came up with for a child with autism and a dog of their own:

  • Does the child like animals, or do they shy away from them (or perhaps have allergies to them?)
  • Is the child old or mature enough to participate in caring for a dog?
  • Are Mom or Dad (or both) ready to help the child learn how to care for a dog? (What will the child's responsibilities be with regards to the dog, and how will you teach them?)
  • Is the type of dog you're considering good with children?

These are just some of the initial questions to ask yourself before considering getting your child with autism a dog.

Alan and I discussed it and decided to consider getting Lucas a dog. We felt he was ready to help care for a living thing. We talked about it to Lucas, knowing that getting a child with autism a dog would be a terrific opportunity for teaching him about caring for a pet, in addition to providing him with a friend (unlike a cat, a dog actually WANTS to be around people!)

We knew that we would want Lucas to help care for his new friend. A dog needs to be exercised, played with, fed, cleaned up after, bathed occasionally, etc., and while Lucas can't do all of this by himself, we certainly wanted him to understand that if he got a dog, he would help care for it.

We wanted him to learn responsibility for another living thing while strengthening a bond between him and his new friend.

Once we decided that this was something we wanted to do and could handle, I did some research. I discovered that there are organizations out there that actually train "service dogs" for people with autism.

But we don't have several thousand dollars to spend on a dog, and decided that we would forgo the "Service Dog" idea, and simply search for a breed of dog that was smart, good with kids, the right size for indoors and fun, and go from there.

I researched various breeds, and we decided on a couple for their small size and intelligence. Then began the web search of local SPCA shelters, so that we could rescue someone who needed a friend just a much as Lucas did.

A child with autism, a dog with love!Needless to say, all my research was a waste of time, because the perfect dog for a child with autism was waiting at our local SPCA!

Her name is Dixie, she's a Chihuahua mix and is a little wiggling bundle of happiness and love. Since she's almost 2, she's already house broken (YAY), and is small enough to sleep on Lucas' bed.

Lucas has to feed her, play with her every day, and is responsible for walking her every morning and evening. He also has to accompany her to the vet when she goes (ewww!)

It took Lucas a little time to get used to Dixie in the beginning. He had to learn to pay attention to her needs instead of just focusing on himself. For Lucas' autism, a dog actually helped him become mindful of others in ways we didn't think he would EVER achieve.

For instance, one night, as Dixie lay on Lucas' bed waiting for him to finish brushing his teeth, Lucas emerged from the bathroom and announced, "I go fast; Dixie's worried about me!" WOW, empathy for another living thing!

Giving a child with autism a dog can obviously be a good thing if they're ready for one. Not only will they have a loyal friend, they'll have another terrific learning arena that's fun for both them and their dog.

It's been almost a year now, and Lucas enjoys his dog thoroughly. He walks her morning and evening, feeds her breakfast and dinner, plays with her, pets her, talks to her and loves her.

Dixie, for her part, is completely devoted to Lucas. She whines when Lucas leaves for school in the morning, rides with me to pick him up from school, sleeps with him and loves to play "rope" and "chase" with him.

We've also discovered that for a person with autism, a dog solves the problem of how to get them exercising. Thanks to Dixie, the walking program we started last year is now a regular part of each day!

For us, putting autism and a dog together has been a great thing. If you're considering it, I hope it's as successful for your family as it's been for ours. What a great feeling it is to know that Lucas now has a friend of his very own!

Yes, it's more work for me, but "Louie, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship!"

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