Dog’s for autistic children – a preliminary report

The primary purpose of dog adoption is to assist relationship development for many people, often referred to as RDI. So I thought it would be interesting to share what we have experienced to date.

Prior to Thatcher’s arrival, we spent six months visiting the dog park on a regular basis as my youngest son had a great fear of dogs. This was a more intensive version of the general desensitization programme for the previous two years.

So far we’ve experienced several significant developments. Firstly, both the boys have learned to pronounce ‘th’ in six weeks of daily practice. Secondly, my older son, who has a tendency to speak inaudibly, now manages to speak more loudly on occasions. All of the children have learned that if they do not tidy their toys, the toys are likely to be chewed or eaten, which is a great and fairly natural incentive.

My youngest son’s first response is always to run away from whatever it is that upsets him. He knows that by running, in the dog’s eyes, he turns himself into a plaything or prey. This has helped him to learn to hold his ground and use his naturally commanding voice. Also, that hand flapping and waving is interpreted as a gesture of alarm or play and that he can communicate more effectively by slowing it down.

By pure luck we find that we choose a sweet natured and intelligent hound. He is easy to train and all the children are keen to learn. Interestingly, on a traffic safety note, whilst they both often dive willy nilly into the road, if they are attached to the end of a leash they are both very careful to ensure that Thatcher doesn’t do likewise. Because they are already fond of him they are keen to treat him well. Whilst it might seem a good idea to steal your own favourite chocolate pudding from the fridge and feed it to the dog, once he sees the dog vomit he has a direct visual reminder that kindness comes in many forms.

Although Thatcher is a Labradoodle, he does shed his hair. So far the boys’ asthma has remained the same. Their eczema and allergies have not worsened nor flared. I think we all benefit as a family from regular walks. I know that the children benefit from freely talking to all the many people that we meet along the way. It has given them a new and interesting subject to talk about. It seems that both adults and children are far more easy going and forgiving if the discussion is about dogs. They have both adopted several conversation openers such as ‘what’s your dog’s name?’ This is especially endearing as the question is centred on the other person. They both recognize and enjoy this expansion.

So those would be the main facts to date.

On a practical note it is good to remember that pets are initially expensive to buy.[adopt] Thereafter, especially if you are in America, there are a number of fixed costs apart from food and equipment. Many people out here opt for pet medical insurance and many veterinarian establishments offer payment programmes to cover the pet’s initial and on-going immunizations and medical treatments. If your pet is not already neutered or spayed this is another huge payment. Puppy training is a must unless you already have experience, and even then, to be frank the puppy training is as much a benefit to the junior owners as it is to the dog. Puppy training for autistic children, in a group setting may be a challenge. However, if the focus remains on the dog and the teacher models the behaviour expected, there is a good chance that those children may have one of their first positive experiences in a crowd.
So basically everyone is happy and hunky dory, except me and the carpet cleaner and the accidents!
As an aside, I also note how logic dictates the rules.

It is our habit as a family, to say goodnight to the children when they are in bed. My youngest and more vocal son, has a strict pecking order when it comes to love. Women, girls and cats, even if they are male cats, can be loved. All other creatures, humans or otherwise are ‘liked.’ His father accepts the status quo, even if he might prefer things to be otherwise. One morning he finds his son fawning on the puppy, hugs and licks and “I love you Thatcher.”
“Great! You love the dog! The dog’s a boy, remember?”
“But you don’t love boys and men, remember?”
“Er……I like mens and boyzes…….but I love wimmins and cats and pets, even if dey are dirty old smelly dogs.”
“I’m not that old!”
“Er…….it’s o.k. dad…… don’t smell as bad as Thatcher.”

I could write more but I’m a bit pushed for time as “Nonna” needs me.

I you have the time “other people” also need a dog for autistic children as you can see over here at “Michelle’s” blog.

Lastly, if you think I’m exaggerating about the ‘th’ pronunciation you can check out the “video” and hear for “yourself.”

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Follow my lead or maybe hers?

Tackle It Tuesday Meme

I'd be lying if I said it doesn't annoy me, but other people's habits are just as ingrained as my own.

I don't know how you get along with your mother in law but there are some fairly standard stereotypes associated with this relationship. Personally, I am greatly in favour of RDI. Not the RDI of autism but rather the RDI of Relative:Divorce Index, for those of us in the know. It's just another one of those challenges that we have to tackle.

Part of my weekly routine is to dead head the roses on a Sunday morning, before it's too hot and before we go 'out.' What with “one” thing and “another,” my routine is off and petals brown on the bushes. It happens annually around this time of year, when the house is “full” and we slip into “holiday time.”

During holiday time, it is Nonna's routine to wander the garden in the early morning dew, during the breakfast mayhem indoors. As she walks, she snaps off the dead heads with her bare hands and drops them on the ground.

Inside we tackle each tortuous stage of our morning routine but out of the corner of my eye, I see those thorny dead heads amass, all ready to snare the unwary. The garden and “outside” generally, is already, and always has been, a challenge for the boys. The de-sensitization campaign is “ongoing.” Currently his list of deadly weapons includes not only all things that could be termed 'sharp' but also a very wide range of rough textures. I know that later I shall have to test my own visual acuity to hunt down each and every one of those prickly spars, if I ever hope to have dinner outside.

I have no time to hunt as every minute of the day is already accounted for.


Once breakfast is over, I combine clear up with supper preparation. I know that consumption of stuffed tomatoes is overly optimistic, but the food campaign is relentless. I leave them on the counter to come up to room temperature, ready to top, de-seed and assemble. Whatever happened to ‘life is too short to peel a grape’ or is it ‘stuff an olive’?

In the heat of the season this doesn't take long and all cooking must be completed prior to my own “meltdown.”

The loose summer routine of summer days ticks forward. In between whiles I zip into the garden to scatter slug pellets with one hand and gather thorny twigs with the other. The plan is to zip for a few minutes in every one hour. 10 hours, ten handfuls and lots of “hand washing” until dinner.

We spend a considerable amount of time in the pool to decompress, cool off, therapize and fun. Lucky, lucky us.

As usual, I find that all of them are infinitely more coherent thereafter, calm, happy and on full beam.

“Hey Mom!”
“Yes dear,” I reply, not looking as I rub down his big brother with a huge sun crisped towel.
“Hey Mom!” he persists good naturedly. I look up. He stands next to the arbor in an 'I'm a little tea pot' pose. At the end of his spout is a perfect pincer grip, poised mid air. Across his face is a perfect cherubic grin. He reaches in towards the branch as I watch captivated, takes careful hold and snaps off a huge, woody thorn. I cannot read my own facial expression but it's enough to send him scampering towards me with one outstretched rigid arm. He brakes in front of me as I'm kneeling. He lifts it to my nose for closer examination. I see his eye balls cross in concentration with his hot breath wafting over my face, a thorn between two buds. “You my son are the very bravest one!” I beam and break the spell.

He skips off with his prize as I hobble inside with his brother and his jelly legs wrapped up burrito style. I park him on the hardwood floor, vertical, feet end down as he wobbles to gain his balance. I lean on the kitchen counter and wait. His gyro kicks in and the towel is kicked off as he escapes. As I look down I notice a tomatoe is missing. I look across to the table, to Nonna enjoying a diabetic snack, “they're very good these, did you know?”

I pout.

I think.

Maybe, if I am very lucky I will be granted the chance to visit my own married son, in the future. Perhaps in a foreign land. I might have brief glimpses of him during his very busy life. I will remain at home all day, every day with my daughter in law for two months solid.

I hope she’s not a pouty little Madam? That would be so annoying.

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Early Days 8 – cracking the code

That innocent word, ‘play’ can be huge hurdle for some autistic children. “Scheduling time” is a marathon and many of us, parents that is to say, have a hard time planning out what to do, how and when?

What we [parents] refer to when we say ‘play’ seems simple enough and doesn’t need any explanation, but ‘play’ when it comes to autistic children may not be quite so straightforward.

If you looked at my boys when they were little, you would have seen them playing, not just the typical autistic play of lining things up, moving toys in a mechanical and repetitive manner, examining some tiny feature on a toy but behaviour that would ‘pass’ as typical play. Teasing these elements apart, unless you are very observant or a play therapist, is not that easy for the novice. [translation = me]

The key element that experts often refer to is ‘lack or impairment of imaginative play.’ When I looked at my boys, I would see them pretending to be dinosaurs, or dinosaur eggs. To me that looked like imaginative play, there was no impairment that I could see. I knew what my eyes saw and yet I knew that I was missing something, but I didn’t know what it was?

A typical exchange at that time would be when I watched my son be an Allosaurus. I wasn’t allowed to join in, though I often tried. [translation = on each occasion that he pretended to be whichever dinosaur was in favour that day] He didn’t mind me watching by then. [translation = first he was unaware that I was watching, then when he did become aware that I was watching, he objected violently] This was something that he played alone. Since dinosaurs were his area of enthusiasm, this was my cue to engage with him. [translation = joint attention]

I had learned to be upbeat and use simple language. His mimicry was superb, his body and gestures matched those in the many, many books we had about dinosaurs. I knew that to praise him, would guarantee a level 10 meltdown. It also took me a long time to correct myself. [translation = not to ask a question that elicits a response, which would seem the most obvious step when you’re dealing with a speech delay, but instead, to make a statement which removes the pressure and stress of having to find a response]

At that time we were still trying to fathom out his rule matrix. [translation = the many triggers to meltdowns] One trigger was buried in this daily ‘pretend’ play, but I didn’t know what it was. The experts always ask you, ‘and what exactly preceded the outburst’? I knew that I was doing something wrong and provoking his meltdown. I changed ‘my script,’ my ‘approach,’ and everything else I could think of, to try and make it work, but the outcome was always the same. It remained the same until he was able to use enough words for me to be able to translate and interpret their meaning.

I watch. I have a pad of paper and pencil behind me listing in detail each exchange we have attempted over the last 27 days all of which have been unmitigated failures, each of which I’ve crossed off, eliminated. I am going to play dinosaurs with my son if it kills me. [translation = or the T-rex bites my head off first]

“You are a Lambiosaurus!” He rears up a little in response, bears his teeth a little more and claws the air in slow motion. I watch carefully, willing myself to see the trigger. Nothing. So far so good. He jumps onto the sofa a morphs into a different dinosaur. Which one? I watch. I watch until I am sure.
“You are a fantastic Stegosaurus!” He snaps a glare at me! I used a ‘praising adjective’ by accident! It just slipped out! I hold my breath waiting for the explosion. Nothing. I got away with it, but he did notice the word. Maybe I’ve made a mistake? Maybe all this time I’ve been assuming that he didn’t like praise but actually it’s something else that’s setting him off? What could it be?

He lumbers off the couch onto the floor and morphs into a, into a ? yes, into ….. “You’re pretending to be a fabulous Parasaurolophus!” I blurt with unsuppressed excitement. He arches back raging at the ceiling, screaming his lungs empty, not as any dinosaur but as a misunderstood child. He rolls on the floor crying and beating the carpet. What? What? What? Please help me understand.

I can’t believe that I’ve blown it again. I rub his back as he curls into a small hard ball, blocking me out. I wipe away the tears coursing down his cheek his body wrapped up like an egg. Why is there no manual? No book? No ‘how to?’ Can you plead with a four year old?

All I can say is ‘sorry’ quietly, again and again as I stroke his silky hair. He calms, slowly and lifts his head, “I not pretend,” he says crisply. These are probably the only three words he will utter during the next 24 hour period. 3 words. His eyes stare into mind. Eyes may be windows but I still can’t see. He says it again with emphasis on ‘pretend.’ 6 words in 24 hours! Does this mean they’ll be no words tomorrow, that he’s used up two days supply of words? I cringe at the thought of the future silence, wasted on a repetition because I am too stupid to understand him the first time. I stare at the surface of his glistening eyes willing myself to see.
“You’re not pretending you ARE a dinosaur!” I gasp. He dives at me, medicine ball head to sternum shouting “YES!”
We rock. 7 whole words! We rock back and forth clutching each other with all the force that can be mastered by a four year old.

He bursts away from me, “I am egg! You sit on me!” I am in a state of shock, too dumb to quibble, I simply obey. I sit on my son who is curled up like an egg. [translation = proprioceptive input on the sly] The egg starts to crack as I move off, to find that a baby Corythosaurus has hatched, tweets mewling noises and preens his crest for my wonderment. He had invented a game for us to play together, our first real pretend play. He has used 14 words in one day. We played it every day. I try hard to forget to count words. It was my all time favourite game ever.

Lastly, a lesson in imaginative play, brought to you by the ‘guy’ I love to hate, Spongebob et al in ‘The Idiot Box.’ [translation = television]

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