April is National Autism Awareness Month. It’s also the month we celebrate National Pet Day, National Kids and Pets Day and National Library Week. (There’s International Pooper Scooper Week and Hairball Awareness Day, too, but we’ll skip over those for the moment. . . .) Over the course of just one month, we shine a light on kids, pets, the challenges of autism, and reading. This gives me the happy opportunity to highlight several remarkable programs that all share a common denominator: the special relationship between kids and pets.
Let’s start with reading, a skill that, sadly, doesn’t come easily to all of us. There are sometimes neurological reasons for this, of course, that need specialized intervention. For far too many children, however, learning to read is hampered less by ability and more by fear: fear of making mistakes, fear of looking dumb, fear of being ridiculed by peers.
Find an audience whose patient, attentive, nonjudgmental presence will encourage and affirm the reluctant reader. Make that an audience of one with four legs and a furry coat, and you have the kinds of programs that are seeing remarkable success in schools and libraries across the country.
They go by a variety of names – Paws to Read, Tales to Tails, Paws4People – but they share the common goal of increasing children’s literacy skills and, in the process, their love for reading. Their success is attributed almost exclusively to the use of therapy dogs who are specially trained simply to be good listeners. Sitting, even snuggling a bit, with their furry companions, children quickly forget their anxieties and discover that they actually enjoy reading!
Not surprisingly, the successes aren’t limited to literacy. Staff and parents alike speak of increased self-confidence and the self-esteem that comes from a sense of accomplishment. The student benefits from assuming the role of teacher, sharing his new love of reading with his companion. “Oh, Olivia!” exclaimed one reader to his canine friend. “I have a story today that I know you’re just going to love!”
Equally exciting successes are seen with autistic children who often lack basic social skills and assertiveness, the latter being the ability to introduce oneself, ask a question, or ask to join in an activity. Research increasingly reveals that a child who has a pet in the home – dog, cat, rabbit, bird, even a spider! – shows greater advancement in these two areas than a child without an animal companion. Why? It seems that any kind of pet can serve as a catalyst for interaction and conversation. Just like the rest of us, these children love to talk about their pets!
Apparently autistic children also have difficulty feeling empathy for other living things. Pets can help with this, too. Picture an autistic boy named Logan who enjoyed reading to his therapy dog, Gibbs. While reading a Clifford book to Gibbs one day, Logan intentionally skipped a couple of pages in which Clifford was sad. Why? Logan didn’t want the story to hurt Gibbs’s feelings.
Do you know some happy success stories about kids and pets? We'd love to hear them! And don't forget to celebrate National Kids and Pets Day on April 26th!
A few important words about autism:
Autism rates in the U.S. have risen from 1:10,000 in 1981 to 1:68 in 2014. Multiple studies point to the prevalence of toxins in our environment as the culprit. Our environment, of course, includes the air within our homes, which the EPA says is far more toxic than the air outside our homes. Our household cleaners are particularly toxic; so if we want to clean up the air we breathe in our homes, we need to eliminate most of our cleaners. The Environmental Working Group (EWG) will help you find the safest cleaners on the market or give you recipes for making your own. Even better, try PurSpray Pet Care! PurSpray will clean nearly every solid surface in your home, without toxic chemicals.
PurSpray Pet Care is committed to healthy pets, healthy people, and a healthy planet.
SOURCES for this article:
Laura T. Coffey. “’I love them’: Kids with autism connect, cuddle with future service dogs.” http://www.today.com/pets/i-love-them-kids-autism-connect-cuddle-future-service-dogs-2D79783882 June 10, 2014.
Jessica Firger. “Pets help autistic kids improve social skill.” http://www.cbsnews.com/news/pets-help-autistic-kids-advance-social-skills/ Dec. 31, 2014
Carolyn Gregoire. “Pets May Help Improve Social Skills of Children with Autism. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2015/01/04/pets-children-autism_n_6396348.html Jan 4, 2015.
Arjun Walia. "Scientists Link Autism to These TOxic Chemicals During Fetal Development." http://www.collective-evolution.com/2014/05/11/new-study-links-autism-to-toxin-exposure/ May 11, 2014
"Brain Drain: Could Environmental Chemicals Cause Autism?" http://www.nrdc.org/living/healthreports/brain-drain-environmental-chemicals-autism.asp Last revised Dec 30, 2011
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