Puppies and kids. Is there any mental picture that is more endearing to a family? How many holiday cards do we receive from family and friends that include the family pet? Duh - nearly all of them, of course! Every child in the world wants a pet to hug, chase, and feed yucky vegetables to under the table. A pet to sleep on the bed to protect them at night. Monsters never again emerge from the closet and spooky sounds in the night are no longer worrisome. Pets provide unlimited love and never judge or bully you; all the evils a child fears are more easily conquered when he or she has a warm, furry friend to snuggle up to. Pets are an important part of growing up, and, truth be told, an essential part of life for many adults as well. For me, it's cats; I now have two. But I grew up with dogs, cats, horses and parakeets (though I have to admit that the parakeets had a less-than-ideal life in a house filled with cats).
In this episode of Parenthood, an inadvertent slip of the tongue has Max hyped up and excited about getting a dog. As would be predicted with someone with Asperger's, Max has taken control - picking out the exact dog he wants and the date and time he should go get it. He doesn't consider what his parents must: the expense and commitment that goes along with owning a pet. Max only knows that since he has made the decision to have a pet, it must happen exactly as he predicts. When reality sets in and Max is denied the particular dog he wants, he becomes very upset and cannot appreciate that spending $1200.00 for a dog is WAY too much and that the family can't afford it. Max's subsequent 45-minute outburst clearly demonstrates his single-minded approach, lack of understanding of the big picture and his dogged commitment to never giving up. But Max is very bright and should be able to understand why he can't have the $1200.00 dog, correct? Nope, not when you are considering Asperger's syndrome.
Adam and Kristina now have the task that all parents of children with autism spectrum face. They must teach Max that his opinion does indeed count, that he can contribute to the family. But they also must teach him how a family works. That decisions affecting the entire family have to be weighed carefully, and that often, factors beyond control influence the decision-making process.
Max's Asperger's syndrome has short-circuited this process. Regardless of any other factor, Max wants that dog. He is very fortunate that Adam and Kristina are parents that don't just cave in, but instead work to help him see the bigger picture and to find an alternate solution even if it isn't exactly what Max has in mind. A rescue dog or plain ole' mutt can offer just as much love to a child as an expensive show dog.
Around the nation, the importance of pets to those with ASD is becoming better understood and gaining media exposure. Many with ASD bond better with animals than they do with people, becoming more quickly soothed or comforted when they wrap their arms around a furry body instead of a family member during high-stress moments. It is hard to say exactly why this should be, but it is true that animals will listen to you forever (regardless of how you talk or what you say). They are non-judgmental, offer unconditional love, get excited over junk food along with you, and make few demands other than being fed. Pets are a great antidote for the high social demands of a stressful everyday life.
Max really wants a dog, but many individuals with ASD are terrified of dogs and other animals and develop life-long fears that will never allow them to be around pets during their lifetime. Programs exist which can help to desensitize the individual using therapy dogs, cats, horses, hamsters, etc. As a result, some with ASD can overcome their fear and enjoy the love and benefits of animals. Others never will. Some individuals with ASD are drawn like magnets to animals - sometimes to their great benefit, and sometimes to their own detriment. When parents see their child with autism run from their sides, straight to an unfamiliar - and possibly unfriendly -dog, it can get pretty scary. The normal fear of danger doesn't always kick in when it should, and those with ASD can be hurt if the dog attacks. Some dogs are specifically trained to be assistance dogs to individuals with ASD, to know when to intervene when the individual becomes upset, to protect them from harm, and to assist in bonding with peers. With this specially designed training, a dog or other animal can have a huge, positive impact on the life of an individual with ASD.
Owning a pet requires much responsibility and knowledge, though. Max has already demonstrated he can take care of a lizard, but a dog will require much more involvement over a longer time period. Max will need to learn how to care for his new dog, how to handle him appropriately, how to read his signals for hunger and signals for needing to take a walk, how to clean up during the walk, how to brush him, how to make sure he remains healthy and receives all his vaccinations when due. Most of all, Max will need to learn how to include the dog in his life. You can't just ignore a dog for days like you can a lizard. Having the responsibility of owning a pet also means that the dog, too, will require training in ways to respond appropriately when Max is challenged by his Asperger's.
A dog - or any pet - is not something to be excited about for a month; this is a long-term project and should not be viewed as a passing fad. With Max's penchant for exploring every detail regarding his interests, he will no doubt know more about dogs than the nearest veterinarian! With Adam and Kristina's guidance, I'm certain that Max will appreciate the gift that his parents are giving him and enjoy his new dog for many years to come.
Written by Sheila Wagner, M.Ed.