Animal Assisted Therapy
This is a wonderful article about a place called The Barn at Spring Brook Farm in the Philadelphia area. Children who are on the autism spectrum come to The Barn to visit and interact with the animals in an animal-assisted intervention program.
They’ve achieved remarkable results including calming, reduction of fears, speech, and a new level of socialization. Some children who have never had a friend, or been able to create a friendship, have achieved a new skill level.
I’ve always had an interest in this phenomenon. I’m a long-time admirer of Temple Grandin, who unlocked this and shared it years ago. My first book, Just for the Moment: The Remarkable Gift of the Therapy Dog, is a collection of moments when my own therapy dogs made a difference in other people’s lives. The dogs’ effect on elderly, Alzheimer’s, or dementia patients draws the same conclusion as The Barn working with autistic children.
My youngest brother was born with arthrogryposis, a serious birth defect malforming every joint in his body, and inhibiting muscle growth. He spent much of his first twelve years in and out of the hospital, in and out of casts. His pain was difficult to manage even with his sunny disposition. Stress, of course, exacerbates pain. The University of Michigan Hospital kept a “zoo” on the roof where kids could go on sunny days. This was quite progressive for the 50s! My brother connected with a blind white mouse. He kept it in the chest pocket of his hospital gown. It tickled him, and he grew fond of it. It crawled around on his traction and he fed it toast and jello; it slept in his pillowcase. The interesting thing about the mouse was how its size and movements fit Steve so well. He doesn’t have hands; he has a pad with fingers. The fingers can move individually but at odd angles. My other brother and I couldn’t hold on to the mouse. It was in and out of our fingers and plopping to the floor or bed. The little mouse could curl into the pad of Steve’s fingers and squirm contentedly, even falling asleep between his fingers. He hasn’t muscle, so lifting a larger animal, even a kitten, was difficult for him. But he could swing his arm, carrying the little mouse right up to his pocket. He grew in confidence about what he could do. His preoccupation with the mouse controlled his pain better. When he came home, the mouse was with him. When he went back to the hospital, the mouse returned. Steve had a small animal with him for the rest of his life and enjoys the companionship even now.
Animals as therapy is something I’ve always believed in. My current therapy dog regularly visits the nursing home. My new book, Rebecca & Heart, concerns an autistic girl who learns the joy of companionship and the pleasure of touch from a stray dog who changes her life.
I’m glad the official researchers are getting on board with this idea. People who’ve experienced pet therapy of any kind are not surprised by the research results. Animal lovers have always known it.