One morning a few years ago, when I was in high school, I woke up for school and trudged to the kitchen to make myself some breakfast. I will never forget what I saw in the kitchen that morning… My mom, in her bathrobe and light blue monkey pajamas, was sitting on the kitchen floor having a full-out conversation with my dog. Of course, my five-year-old cocker spaniel Penny was not saying anything back. But mom was telling her all about what she had on the docket for the day, and then asking, “And Penny, how did you sleep last night? Did you have any dreams?”
Have you ever had a pet? Have you ever found yourself talking to her, snuggling with her, or petting her absentmindedly, just because being around her makes you feel more comfortable? Have you ever thought about what it is about your pet that makes this so easy? Animals give us a kind of unconditional love and support that allows us to be more vulnerable with them than with anyone else.
I work with a young man named John (name has been changed) who has autism. As you probably know, individuals with autism are commonly challenged by social situations, and social skills are often a core component of IEP’s for kids with autism. John loves people. It’s not that he doesn’t want meaningful relationships; it’s just that he sometimes struggles with knowing how to build them.
The first day I started working with John, I learned about his fear of dogs. John has a cat at home, but something about dogs really scared him. He had never been attacked by a dog, didn’t have a specific reason for being afraid; he just was. John’s family and staff had been working with him on his fear by having him walk a family friend’s dog daily. The first day we walked Huey, John clipped the leash on Huey’s collar, then walked, briskly and quietly. Since then, the improvement that John has made in connecting with Huey is remarkable. These days, John asks if he can walk Huey all by himself. He walks in the door and waves to Huey (who is “waving” back by wagging his tail). He brings Huey on a different path each day, chatting with Huey as he walks. Just last week, John asked me if he could take Huey to the garden so they could smell the flowers together. As soon as they were back from their walk, John asked if he could please give Huey a treat. With their friendship growing a little more each day, John now loves spending time with Huey!
One of John’s coworkers brings her dog to work each day. One day, the dog came into the office, and John asked if he could give her a treat. And then another. And then another… He actually loved giving her treats so much that I had to step in to say, “This is the last one” to make sure the dog wasn’t going to gain too much weight! He got down on his knees, looked the dog in the eye, and let her lick his face all over. Then, the dog rolled over, and John proceeded to rub her belly.
John’s skills with dogs are not the only things that have improved. His social skills have come leaps and bounds since we started working together, and I really think a lot of his progress can be attributed to working with Huey. John’s biggest challenges include initiating conversation and saying good-bye before he walks away. He has practiced a lot with Huey, waving hello to Huey’s wagging tail, then greeting him verbally, and also remembering to say good bye to Huey. Working with dogs has allowed John to feel more comfortable to take risks, because he knows Huey won’t judge him as he is practicing (and mastering) his new skills.
Since animals are adored by many kids of all abilities, keep them in mind while planning great inclusive activities! A few ideas: plan a trip to a farm, bring a group of kids to volunteer at an animal shelter, or ask your staff to bring their pets one day! If your participants with disabilities are a little nervous about practicing social and communication skills with their peers right away, encourage them to practice on the animals. I know one cocker spaniel who would love more quality time with some awesome kids!
–Written by Elise Hopkins, KIT Blog Editor
Kids Included Together (KIT) is a non-profit located in San Diego, CA and Washington, DC. We help make the world a more inclusive place by providing live and online training to people who work with kids. We teach strategies, accommodations and best practices to include kids with and without disabilities in before & after school programs. Inclusive environments create stronger communities. Learn more about our work at www.KITonline.org.