Animal Assisted Therapy, Autism and Me.

In July 2019 I took three days out of my busy schedule, booked a hotel and sent Hendrix to stay with his dog sitting family to attend a conference delivered by Humanima CIC in the beautiful countryside of Staffordshire. I have to admit, I was a little miffed to start with that I couldn’t take Hendrix along with me for the experience. I’d even found a dog friendly hotel to stay at! Otherwise I was super excited to learn more about how animals can be used to support clients meeting therapy objectives.

We were a small group of about 9 and on arrival I was greeted by animal therapist and companion with a big sloppy lick and wagging tail. It was a lovely way to be introduced to the course. Even I find attending these professional events challenging. Meeting new people and learning in a group isn’t my idea of a great day out like it is for some, but meeting an animal first before having to chat or even better, chatting whilst petting an animal, breaks the ice somehow. Makes you feel a little calmer and stops those negative thoughts about if I will gel with these people, will it be worth my hard earned cash to attend, gosh three days could feel like forever.

I’m notoriously hard on myself. I spend my working day analysing interaction, focusing on subtle shifts in attention, focus and emotion. Reflecting it back and helping my clients and their families to deal with differences. That’s my job. I love it. It can be hard sometimes though to switch off from it and so as a human being, I suffer with negative and repetitive thoughts. I experience social anxiety and I work hard at changing these patterns in myself.

Being greeted by an animal before you’ve even had chance to have to initiate a greeting with another human is so calming. Lowering down to meet the animals height gives you a different perspective of the situation. The thoughts become a bit more positive. After all, someone who cares for an animal and has raised them to be friendly can’t be all that bad right?!

So the course went by quickly. I learnt so much about the history of animal assisted therapy, watched videos about animals behaviour and how we can make decisions about their emotional state. I even met and handled some animals and watched a snake perform its business, right there on the conference venue floor. Having now seen and smelt that, I definitely won’t be having reptiles in my menagerie in the future!

What was great about the course was it validated some of the on the job experiences I had already had working with Hendrix and my clients. If already observed how for some clients, the animal becomes the focus of the session and so you can talk more readily with the client about what really matters. I’d also observed that for non verbal clients, the animal was highly motivating to encourage their use of sound or vocalisation. I’d even seen children share toys and their own belongings with the animal when sharing is generally really tricky for them to do. All of the research we were given on the course validated and confirmed my experiences with Hendrix and I was thrilled to have embarked on this new journey with him.

The other thing I really enjoyed was going through some practical ideas on extending therapy with the client. Ways we can use the animal without always having the animal there. This was where I could really see ideas for my autistic clients. Hendrix had already started helping one young boy overcome his phobia of dogs just by being my pet. The boy had started to draw pictures and write letters to Hendrix. It helped that he loved the postal service. I’m sure he will grow up and become a postie and be an absolute credit to the postal service! The boy also started to come out and see Hendrix from a distance at the end of our session so he could check I was passing on the mail to Hendrix properly. This was all over the space of just 4-5 sessions from me telling the client about my dog, showing him a picture and little video clip and then having Hendrix around for after our time together. Although this little boy is still not ready to stroke Hendrix, he is for sure a lot calmer and more relaxed about him just from this little bit of exposure. The impact for this little boy has been encouraging in his social communication. He initiates conversation about Hendrix, thinks about him and writes him a letter. He can even work out if Hendrix is happy or sad from our photos which is an amazing step towards his own emotional regulation and emotional literacy development.

Hendrix has gone on to meet another client. This young man is working on better understanding non verbal communication, intentions and making good guesses about someone else’s thoughts and intentions. What better way to do that then by reading the language of Hendrix?!

We met outside for our session. The session before we went over some expectations and used a doggy language sheet to work out how Hendrix may be feeling when he displayed the behaviours shown on the prompt sheet. We also use zones of regulation in our sessions and so we colour coded the doggy language postures according to how much control the dog had over themselves. This was the first time I didn’t get a huff or puff from the young man about working on emotions and thinking about body language! Super impressed, thanks animal assisted therapy!

Immediately Hendrix greeted the client. Tail wagging, big smiles and pulling mum along to get closer and say hi! The client listened to my instructions straight off, followed them exactly and had Hendrix literally eating out of the palm of his hands in minutes. We used some behavioural clicker training with Hendrix to keep the session focused, direct and meaningful and the client worked with Hendrix to make him sit, stay, down and here throughout the session, quickly moving away from a treat based reward to a verbal “good boy”.

The client invited both his sister and his mum to join him with Hendrix. This young man finds it really tricky to include his sibling and their relationship can at times be challenging. No disagreements in this session and both siblings helped each other out. My client sharing how best to get Hendrix to follow commands and his sister helping the client with fine motor tasks such as clipping and unclipping the lead.

The client also struck up a conversation with me. I usually have to ask questions to get some information action about what’s been happening but in this session I got some doggy stories from the client and how one dog had tried to get in the house so he had to stop it coming in. We had a shared focus together. We had to trust each other within the session because Hendrix was there. I had to trust my client to be kind and follow my lead. He had to trust me not to let the dog harm him.

The experience was motivating enough to let go of some control. It was motivating enough to link back to our therapy goals without sighs and irritability. It was motivating enough to spark conversation and shared engagement with a group. It was motivating enough for the client to use his body to express his intent to Hendrix by squatting down when saying “sit” and Hendrix not listening.  

Hendrix has since written a card to our client and given feedback on his time in the session. We posted it to keep our other client happy and ensure our postal service continues. Hendrix even designed his own card especially to send out. I know, I have one very clever animal co-therapist here! Our client was also tasked with writing a letter to Hendrix about his time in the session. We will look at them both together in our next session and watch a short video of them playing together. From there we will decide what next and I am so excited to see how this relationship develops in the future.

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