How Animals Can Help In Occupational and Social Skills Therapies
My son’s first word was not mama.
It wasn’t dada.
It was a very distinct, “KeeKee”. Translation? Kitty.
My son has been fascinated with animals ever since I can remember. He would never actually pet them and touch tanks were a nightmare. But he would study them, following their movements, intently focused on figuring them out.
By the time he was old enough to read, his favorites were always nonfiction animal books – sharks, snakes, birds, guinea pigs and cats. He read them over and over again.
Last week, we visited a museum near our home. It is one of his favorites, even though there are some hallways and rooms that echo (we stay out of those), because it has so much information about various animals.
One exhibit had this baboon up on the wall.
My son stopped short when he saw it. He looked up, staring at it’s face. After a few seconds, his face visibly changed and it was clear something had registered with him. He turned to me and said, “This one is so very sad.”
He moved on, but I didn’t.
I was floored.
My son had recognized emotion.
As a child on the spectrum, recognizing emotions can be challenging. He obviously has deep feelings, but articulating them, for himself and for others is very, very difficult. We have tried for years to help him interpret clues – “He is upset right now honey. Now is not the time to demand that he help you with the video game. Let’s try and help him feel a bit better first.” This type of interaction is often met with a shrug or a blank stare.
And yet, seeing it on an animal somehow made it easy to interpret. Less emotion. Less confusion. A fixed expression – I think all of this probably helped him to slow it down and have the emotion translate.
This is not the first time animals have helped us make breakthroughs in his development.
For example, my son’s hands have been a very sensitive part of his body for a long time. The sensory experience of them being messy, touching grass, and even getting them wet has been a challenge for my son since he was a toddler.
That is, until we bought him his first salt water aquarium a year ago.
He loves fish. He loves the set up and care of an aquarium. He loves learning every single type of coral in the sea and classifying them by location and light sensitivity. It is an amazing passion for him, drawing him out of his shell and allowing for wonderful, social conversations at fish stores and aquarium shows all around our area.
And, he sticks his hands in the tanks to pick up corals. He mixes salt into water, often using his hands to get the pump started. He digs through the sand as needed to remove shells, redistribute rocks, and even grab slimy algae.
All of this practice in the tank, is starting to translate to the kitchen, the bathroom, and the world at large. He is less likely to panic if something is on his hands. Last week, he got chalk on his hands and started to feel overwhelmed. He couldn’t get it off, no matter how much he rubbed. He tried some water, but he could still feel the chalky residue, no matter how much he used. Finally, we made it to a restroom so he could wash with soap.
It still didn’t feel right to him and caused stress, but he could handle it. He made it without a meltdown. He managed the sensation long enough to get to that sink.
This is exactly what one of our occupational therapy goals has been for two years.
We bought him a cat for the same reason. He has always had an extreme interest in cats (remember, even at a couple months old, the kitty was what got his attention) and has studied them for years. Finally, on the advice of his OT, we bought a little kitten for him. She said it might be therapeutic for him and she was 100% right. The cat loves him more than any of us. She cuddles on his bed with him. He pets her, asks for her, talks to her, and doesn’t mind it when she playfully bites his toes or leaves a little hair behind (both of which would’ve been received poorly in the past). He even deals well with the smell of her food.
He loves her, and I am finding he is learning to express love because of her. At times, he now pretends to be a kitty. Sometimes, he will walk in, meow at me and purr. For a while, I was a little worried. But one day, I played along. I petted his head and he smiled. I petted his tummy and he snuggled against me. He wanted to be affectionate, but wasn’t sure how. Being like the cat was an easy way to communicate his need.
The tank. The cat. And there’s more….
He also did this last week, despite obvious sensory challenges.
This is the result of a social skills exercise in which I asked my son to pick someone that we could use as a case study to profile likes and dislikes. The idea was to help him practice seeing things from another’s point of view. He chose our dog, Binky.
Slowly but surely, I am starting to piece together the impact of animals in his development. I am sharing this, not knowing exactly what it means long term, but certain that animals are helping him, more and more, connect and engage with human beings in a world that can be tough on him.
It makes sense. He is interested. He is motivated.
Animals don’t talk. They don’t require. They are more predictable.
And they are becoming an important part of his life for so many reasons. Not just because they help him learn how to engage in social situations and manage sensory issues.
But because animals also make him smile. They delight him.
And that delights me.
Shawna Wingert is a special education teacher turned educational consultant, and mom of two brilliant boys who have learning differences and special needs.
Shawna has also written four books: Everyday Autism, Special Education at Home, Parenting Chaos, and Homeschooling Your Child With Special Needs. A passionate advocate for individualized education, Shawna is frequently featured on Today.com, Simple Homeschool, Weird Unsocialized Homeschoolers and The Mighty. She can also be found supporting parents online at her own site, DifferentByDesignLearning.com.