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How Getting a Dog Helped My Son With Autism

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We are a family of five — two of us play acting as adults, two of us getting trained in being adults and one of us getting away with being a lazy dog! Hail Caesar — that’s our English Lab, part wild, part sage and fully adorable.

Our son has autism, which makes life fairly unconventional in our household. One of our challenges has been to help him engage with his environment and the people in it. It was one of the first signs that prompted us to get him assessed for a developmental delay.

He stated receiving fairly intensive early intervention by the time he was 2 years, 4 months old, however I have to admit the shock of the diagnosis overwhelmed me and for a while I lost my parenting mojo. We had just moved, and I also had an older child who was only 5 and struggling to settle into the new city and school.

My husband, God bless him, has always loved dogs but had been scared to suggest we get one, knowing how difficult I found the whole change in our circumstances. But like the change in seasons, every few months he would let slip his desire to get a dog. I pretended not to hear and went about my business. We moved to a new home, and while our son was doing well I did still worry that he wasn’t engaging with the environment as much as he should. Being the stay-at-home parent, the onus of that fell squarely on my shoulders.

Those of you who have been in a similar place will understand that keeping a child on the autism spectrum engaged and involved with you often takes a lot of patience, ingenuity and creativity. We have been told the best thing for a child on the spectrum is to be kept actively engaged for 8-10 hours a day. That’s a lot!

I finally agreed to take the plunge and get a dog after my older child started whining for one — the whining of a 7-year-old is hard to bear! — and my own research that indicated having a pet of any sort is very beneficial for kids on the spectrum. Enter Caesar, an English Lab with a fabulous pedigree and cute as a button. He officially entered the family as a 7th birthday present for my daughter, but we knew from day one his heart firmly belonged with the boys of the family, my husband and son.

I won’t lie and say it was or has been easy from the start. He chewed things, climbed on things and was a wild little chap. He didn’t seem to get “no” and was always hungry. But it was also undeniable that my son couldn’t look away from him!

It started as apprehension at this furry toy-like creature who seemed to move around an awful lot, and thus improved my son’s scanning abilities. Then came the age-old game of fetch, where Caesar would run and get a ball or toy thrown for him. My son loved this game and could now stay focused on this activity for an extended period of time — 10-15 minutes to start.

My son’s first few words were also directed at Caesar, a loud and emphatic, “Caesar, n0!”

If left alone, my son loved lining up toys as do many kids on the spectrum. This solitary activity would keep him engaged for hours, and while I encouraged him to try other activities, I had to constantly be creative and badger him into stuff I wanted him to do. With Caesar around, this solitary play reduced drastically.

As my son grew and got more verbal, a lot of his language was around his dog. He has always been an emotionally happy, loving child, and this affection was now directed at Caesar, who reciprocated wholeheartedly. A boy and his dog became best friends.

Now that my son is 8 and learning ADL skills, I have taught him to take care of Caesar. He fills his bowl with water and also puts his bowls of food down whenever he’s at home. Recently when Caesar hurt himself, my son accompanied him to the vet and held his face while the doctors were attending to him. This is empathy and connection as only a pet can bring.

When we first got Caesar, I harbored fond hopes of him becoming a service dog for my son. That bubble burst early on for a number of reasons. Caesar was very hard to train for everything except toilet training. He still chews on anything within reach. On the positive side, we have a spotless, clutter-free home and the kids have learned to put away any shoe or toy they value.

There are few (if any) trainers in our city (Gurgaon) who train service dogs, and the YouTube tutorials we watched didn’t help us any. After a lot of soul searching, we decided we liked Caesar being his own wild self, because that unpredictability is what held our son’s attention. This does not mean to say you shouldn’t attempt to train your pooch or that dogs can’t be trained into fabulous supports for kids with disabilities. I know of trainers in Bombay, Chennai and Bangalore who specialize in this area. We have just not made that effort, that’s all.

A dog is wonderful, but takes a lot of work and effort from the adults in the house, so only go for it if you are absolutely committed to the idea. Allow your child to nurture the pet too; feeding, brushing and walking your pet can be greatly beneficial. Choose a breed that is known for its gentleness around kids, such as Labradors or beagles. If in doubt, seek advice from dog lovers or vets. Invest time and energy in building the bond between your child and pet; it doesn’t always happen in an instant. Do not expect life-changing miracles immediately; think marathon, not sprint.

Our dog has brought more joy and laughter to our already happy home, and while there are days when I’m pulling my hair out, there are more nights than not when I thank my stars that Caesar is part of our family.

Getty image by Ryan McVay.

Originally published: June 23, 2019
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