AAM Guest Post - Pet Therapy and #Autism

I am pleased to have Ilene Fine guest blogging here at Acting Balanced as part of Autism Awareness month. 

Pet Therapy and Autism

I wish I knew more about Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD)--the whys and the what-ifs-- but, then again, so do the parents, friends, teachers and medical professionals worldwide who know someone afflicted with it or who tirelessly devote their lives to finding a cure or a best treatment.   For two years, my husband and I, along with our two dogs, Brandy and Val, have worked with children and young adults ages 7 - 20 who fall along the spectrum.  I learn as much from the sessions as I become puzzled by them.  Why are some of the children non-verbal yet social while others retreat behind noise-reducing headphones?   Why is a placid young man now prone to outbursts?  What we have witnessed first-hand is that, without exception, everyone has responded favorably in some way to the pet therapy programs in which Brandy and Val participate.

The dogs get excited when we tell them we’re going to work and see the kids; we know the feeling is mutual!  We’re now greeted with “hello Brandy”/“hello Val,” waves and smiles where we once were met with blank stares.  The classes are more respectful of the dogs and focused than when the program began and for many of the kids, just recalling the pups’ names from week to week is a big step forward.  These minor events may not seem like much but to the aides and teachers who strive to “reach” their students it’s a big deal.   Maybe Brandy and Val sense these kids as underdogs in some way as they, too, once were, having overcome great obstacles to be the lucky dogs they are today.  Both were shelter dogs, left abandoned and homeless and Val is a Hurricane Katrina survivor.   It’s amazing to watch their loving and unflappable demeanors adjust to each personality and guide the kids along, providing their own type of instruction. 

Who knew when we began in the program that holding a leash and walking Brandy and Val would become our most popular activity?  Initially met with mixed reviews, about a quarter of the kids (10 of about 40) would not participate for whatever reasons--lack of self-confidence, lack of muscle coordination, fear of the dogs or social interaction.  We now have 100% participation!  Other accomplishments include teaching the proper use of a fork through feeding the pups treats.   Several children couldn’t handle the utensil, would grab the food and either eat or throw it.  That never happens anymore.  Many can now even identify and choose among a carrot, strawberry or blueberry, Brandy and Val’s treats of choice.  We’ve also progressed to multi-tasking exercises, a feat we never could have imagined on day one.  For example, a grouping will include walking with the dogs to the end of the room, telling Brandy or Val to sit, stand, and then walk back.  These require advanced skill sets which cover a variety of cognitive and muscular disciplines as they instill a sense of self awareness and confidence.

While discernable strides can be slow or frustrating at times, the end results are concrete and exhilirating to be a part of.  Along with the other repetitive tasks we practice, our hope is that “our kids” will use these skills outside of the classroom to the benefit of their family, friends, community, and most of all, to themselves.

Brandy and Val also star in their own board book series: “Brandy and Val, Real Dogs with Real Tales” with accompanying plush toys.  Sales benefit animal rescues throughout the country.  Please visit or contact them at http://www.BrandyandVal.com. Their mom, Ilene Fine,  was inspired to create the series for a friend’s child with special needs.  Ilene has been tutor/mentoring inner city youths and adults for over 20 years and is also involved with promoting literacy in both adults and children.  They currently live outside Chicago.