This is a guest post by Teresa Foden, Assistant Editor of the IAN Project at Kennedy Krieger Institute.
Sometimes you look at a rescue dog and wonder why he was dropped off at the shelter. This was not the case for Bailey. He was a mess. Transported north more than 500 miles in hopes that someone at a dog-rescue event in Maryland might be fool enough to adopt him, he barked, he yelped, he yanked the leash…and this turned out to be Bailey on his best behavior. In line to be euthanized at an animal shelter down South, Bailey, a Catahoula leopard dog who flunked his tracking training, had danced when the staff delivered his food. It was described as a four-step sort of canter dance, really something you had to see to believe. It saved his life. But now it looked like he had “flunked” adoption, too, his antics keeping potential adoptees at bay (oh, I forgot to mention – he bayed, too). As volunteers for the rescue organization, we agreed to take Bailey home, temporarily, until another volunteer could retrieve him. Hopefully, it would be soon.
But one of our twin daughters, Hannah, found in Bailey her four-legged soul mate. Hannah had always been a little different from other children, but most people, well, adults mostly, found her endless monologues about dogs – their behavioral psychology, their strong loyalties, even their genetics – somewhat engaging and endearing. And when that didn’t work, she had this hopping sort of dance she couldn’t contain when she was happy. We called it the “Happy Hannah Dance.” But that all changed in middle school, when teachers lost patience for her idiosyncrasies and she became the brunt of teasing from her disdainful classmates. At 12, she was diagnosed with Asperger’s. Rather than giving her comfort that there was a name that explained her difficulties, that there were other people who saw the world through a similar lens, the official confirmation that she didn’t “fit in” was devastating for her. The Happy Hannah Dance was over.
In the following months and years, Bailey grew to be a central part of our family. When Hannah says, “Sit,” (sometimes) he sits. When Hannah says, “Lie down,” (sometimes) he lies down. When Hannah says, “I love you, Bailey,” he crawls into her lap on the floor and they seem to become one. During Bailey’s time with us, we have watched Hannah grow to trust not only Bailey, but herself. She and Bailey have been engaged in a metaphorical dance. Like many families, we have seen a relationship with an animal contribute to the emotional healing of someone with a disability. It’s hard to put into words, and we are left saying inadequate things like, “Those two, they saved each other.” Like others with similar experiences, we wonder if there is any possibility that what we see is real enough to be actually measured, scientifically tested in a research situation, and someday delivered to children. Is there a way to harness the bond that seems to arise naturally between many children and animals to treat something we don’t fully understand, something like autism?
Read IAN’s Dogs, Horses, and ASD: What Are Animal-Assisted Therapies? to find out more about the state of the research into animal-assisted therapies.
Learn about the Interactive Autism Network and how you can participate in autism research.