For the Love of Dogs: A Forthcoming Ethnography of Pet Dogs and Families of Children with Autism Spectrum Disorder

(In this latest addition to our series of guest posts by social scientists studying autism, it’s great to have Katrina Holland. Katrina is a postgraduate student of Anthropology at University College London. UCL is also where she completed her undergraduate study in Anthropology, focusing on human–dog relations in her undergraduate dissertation. Her forthcoming project is concerned with the role of pet dogs in families of children with ASD)

Autism made school and social life hard, but it made animals easy” (Grandin 2005, 1).

Anecdotal reports for the benefits of animal interaction for autistic individuals are plentiful and subjectively positive (notable examples include: The Horse Boy (Isaacson 2009); A Friend Like Henry (Gardner 2008); Songs of the Gorilla Nation (Prince-Hughes 2004), and Animals in Translation (Grandin and Johnson 2005), from which the above quote is taken). Recently, anthropologists have started to pay attention to the autism-animal connection in their work, with a notable emphasis placed on the attempt to better understand and conceptualise human sociality. I hope to build on this literature with my forthcoming research project, focusing on the role of pet dogs in families of children with Autism Spectrum Disorder. In this brief article I will introduce the topic of my research inquiry and share my research plans for the coming months.

When I am asked about what I’m currently working on, people often ask me: “Why the pet dog in particular?” or, “What about other pets?” Of course, many people, autistic and neurotypical alike, have a great affinity with a wide variety of animals, not only dogs. To the contrary of course, some people are self-proclaimed non animal-persons. For those autistic persons who do enjoy the company of dogs (and, yes, other animals too), however, these interactions present an opportunity to support their communication and expand ideas about culturally normative sociality to incorporate autistic ways of being social. Certainly, a great variety of animals have been proven to have wide-ranging psychological and physiological benefits for all kinds of human populations. Nevertheless, the dog earned the nickname “man’s best friend” for good reason: associated with the extensive period in which mankind and dog have lived alongside each other. Dogs were the very first thing to be domesticated by man, before any other animal or plant. For me, this is what makes the dog as a species so fascinating in the study of human–animal relations. Our tens of thousands of years spent co-evolving alongside one another has resulted in remarkably effective interspecies communication. For instance, in controlled tests the dog outperforms even our closest primate relative (phylogenetically speaking), the chimpanzee, at reading human communicative cues (see Hare and Tomasello 2005).

So, what does the dog have to do with autism? Increasing claims have been made for the potential benefits of canine encounters for autistic persons, following child psychiatrist Boris Levinson’s writings in the 1960s. Levinson (1962) reported how a child patient, who typically appeared “withdrawn” during psychotherapy sessions, responded in remarkable ways when Levinson’s dog “Jingles” happened to be present. The child even spoke to the dog: a great surprise to Levinson who had not been able to provoke speech during the previous month. This led Levinson to conclude that pets, such as dogs, can provide the autistic child with a level of connectedness that might not be present in their relationships with other people. When interacting with the dog, Levinson claims, the child establishes his own world in accordance with boundaries set by the child himself. This offers the therapist a chance to momentarily share in the child’s world where he feels safe and it is in these moments that the possibility for communication between child and therapist arises.

One implication of the animal connection is that individuals can learn about social behaviour through animals and then apply this to their interactions with humans. Exemplary of this argument – though not here in relation to dogs – is Dawn Prince-Hughes’ (2004) account of learning sociality from gorillas within a Seattle zoo, in which she reports of the success she has had from applying what she learnt from the gorillas to her human interactions.

Returning the focus to dogs, Olga Solomon (2012) has noted how human–dog interactions might allow the autistic child to recognise his/her capabilities to enjoy interactions with both animal and human others. Echoing Prince-Hughes’ experience with gorilla encounters, human–dog interactions present the individual with the opportunity to try out perhaps nonlinguistic but highly social actions in a safe space, free from the culturally normative constraints of social conventions. Solomon claims that interactions between therapy dog and autistic child challenge three common assumptions inherent in the dominant theories of sociality: the primacy afforded to verbal language and also theory of mind, and that sociality is a uniquely human way of being with other humans. On this basis, instead of thinking about sociality as an individual characteristic belonging to a person, Solomon suggests that it might be better considered as a property of particular environments. To this argument she claims that therapy dogs can act as “mediators” of sociality, increasing the opportunities for social coordination to occur.

That the dog should make such a good companion, especially for autistic children, is of course really rather intuitive. When interacting with dogs, humans need not depend on verbal language to understand basic dog behaviour, such as initiating play. Furthermore, dogs will not only initiate a bid for attention, but they insist on it. For instance, they may bring a ball to a child, then, if ignored, push it closer to the child, bark, or otherwise demand a response. No verbal language or understanding of more complex human-human interaction is required.

While anthropologists have as yet limited their interest to trained assistance and therapy dogs, my research will focus on the more typical experience of families with pet dogs. During this summer, I will be spending time with several families in southern England. The two things these families have in common are their child’s ASD diagnosis and their pet dog(s). By spending time in family homes, observing daily engagements between the humans and dogs, as well as joining the family on outings such as dog walks, I hope to address the role of the dog in the particular context of autism in everyday family life. Specifically this will involve a consideration for whether the dog takes on an additional, or altogether different, role for the autistic child as non-human caregiver. To this end I will engage with ideas concerning the distinctions between human and animal and observe how these are expressed in everyday life. More broadly however, I intend to produce an ethnography that attempts to grasp an understanding of the possible ways of being in the world that are made possible at the intersection of autism and pet dogs in the everyday family environment.

Works cited

Gardner, N. 2008. A friend like Henry. London: Hodder & Stoughton.

Grandin, T., and Johnson, C. 2005. Animals in Translation: Using the Mysteries of Autism to Decode Animal Behavior. New York: Scribner.

Hare, B. and Tomasello, M. 2005. ‘Human-like social skills in dogs?’ Trends in Cognitive Sciences, Vol. 9, 439–444.

Isaacson, R. 2009. The horse boy. New York: Little, Brown and Company.

Levinson, B. M. 1962. ‘The dog as a “co-therapist.”’. Mental Hygiene, Vol. 46, 59–65.

Prince-Hughes, D. 2004. Songs of the Gorilla Nation: My Journey Through Autism. New York: Three Rivers Press.

Solomon, O. 2012. ‘Doing, being and becoming: The sociality of children with autism in activities with therapy dogs and other people’ Cambridge Anthropology, Vol. 30 (1), 109-126.


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Autism in History

(In this new guest post in The Autism Anthropologist, it’s a real pleasure to have Bonnie Evans. Bonnie is a Wellcome Trust Postdoctoral Fellow at Queen Mary, University of London. She is currently conducting a project entitled “Neuroscience, Psychology and Education: Autism in the UK 1959-2014.” She is interested in the development of psychology, psychoanalysis, psychiatry, and related neurosciences in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. She completed her Ph.D. at the Department of History and Philosophy of Science, Cambridge University, in 2010 on the origins of child psychiatry and childhood schizophrenia research and its influence on contemporary theories of autism. After completing her Ph.D., she worked as a postdoctoral researcher at King’s College, London’s Centre for Medical Humanities. Her first monograph, The Origins of Autism, is contracted with Manchester University Press and is due out later this year.)

I never set out to write about autism.  My interest in the history of psychology and the human sciences directed me towards this subject and compelled me to reflect on the meaning of autism and its changes over time.  It was whilst searching through back copies of child psychology journals, and examining case studies of children admitted to institutional care from the 1930s to the 1970s, during my PhD research, that I realised the importance of autism, as a diagnostic category and a descriptive concept, to shaping theories of child development in Britain and the USA, and now I am totally hooked on the topic.  Autism has been central to child psychology since its establishment as a discipline in the early 20th century, yet the story is not always told this way.

A recent article that I wrote for the History of the Human Sciences examined how the meaning of autism changed dramatically in the 1960s and 1970s in the Anglo-American world, and the significance of this to understanding today’s ideas about autism.  Whereas pre-1960s autism presumed excessive imagination, fantasies and hallucination in subjects so defined, post-1960s autism highlighted the lack of imagination, fantasies and hallucination in autistic thought.  This has altered how societies have come to think about child development, and its differences, its atypicalities.[1]

I’m not always in an archive. My work in the education sector has brought me into contact with far too many interesting children and adults – some with a diagnosis of autism – for me not to challenge hackneyed beliefs about human types.  I am fascinated with the neurodiversity movement and the way that it makes psychologists, psychiatrists, policy-makers, and others rethink and re-examine their training and their beliefs. This is a good thing.

My current project explores autism, education and neuroscience as these things have developed in Britain since the 1960s.   Another recent article that I wrote in the Bulletin of the History of Medicine explored how the 1959 Mental Health Act forced legal changes concerning the rights of children classed with ‘mental defect’ to an education forced bureaucrats, psychiatrists and psychologists to re-think the way that children were assessed, classified and taught as part of the education system.  It also forced changes in the organization of hospital care for children, which have helped to frame contemporary understandings of autism.[2]

After the 1959 Mental health Act, researchers at the Institute of Psychiatry, London, in particular, have worked with government departments to bring about changes in the way that children with all kinds of special educational needs are assessed and taught, eventually leading up to the 1981 Education Act (1983). The 1981 Act introduced Statements of Special Educational Need into schools, only recently replaced by Education Health and Care Plans.  These legal milestones have been fundamental in establishing, shaping and defining the autism category, and its political clout in the UK.  The 2009 Autism Act is the reflection of a complex history of attempts to establish autism as a category that is recognized in law, a battle that was not easily won.  My book, coming out soon with Manchester University Press, will cover this history, along with a discussion of autism in relation to wider theories of child development.

There are far too many clichés in the way that the history of autism is often told in the press and elsewhere, which can lead to inaccuracies.  This is particularly important in relation to discussions of recent increased rates of autism, because historical knowledge is vital in detecting how much of the increase is due to changes in the application of diagnostic categories.  There is now some really interesting sociological and historical work on the autism epidemic, notably Gil Eyal’s book, The Autism Matrix.[3]  Other sociological, historical and literary scholarship has opened up new ground in ways to think about autism.[4]

Since the early 20th century, autism has been an important concept with which to think about human development.  Today’s autism, as a diagnostic category, as a legal term, as a self-identifier, as a descriptive concept, is no less complex than earlier definitions. What has definitely changed is that more people are thinking, talking and writing about it.


[1] B. Evans, “How Autism Became Autism: The Radical Transformation of a Central Concept of Child Development in Britain,” Hist Human Sci 26, no. 3 (2013).

[2]B. Evans, “The Foundations of Autism: The Law Concerning Psychotic, Schizophrenic, and Autistic Children in 1950s and 1960s Britain,” Bull Hist Med 88, no. 2 (2014).

[3] Gil Eyal et al., The Autism Matrix (Cambridge: Polity, 2010).

[4] E.g. Chloe Silverman, Understanding Autism : Parents, Doctors, and the History of a Disorder (Princeton, N.J. ; Woodstock: Princeton University Press, 2011); I. Hacking, “Autism Fiction: A Mirror of an Internet Decade?,” University of Toronto Quarterly 79, no. 2 (2010); Stuart Murray, Representing Autism : Culture, Narrative, Fascination (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2008); Majia Holmer Nadesan, Constructing Autism (London: Routledge, 2005).


List of References:

Evans, B. “How Autism Became Autism: The Radical Transformation of a Central Concept of Child Development in Britain.” Hist Human Sci 26, no. 3 (2013): 3-31.

Evans, B. “The Foundations of Autism: The Law Concerning Psychotic, Schizophrenic, and Autistic Children in 1950s and 1960s Britain.” Bull Hist Med 88, no. 2 (2014): 253-85.

Eyal, Gil, B Hart, E Onculer, N Oren and N Rossi. The Autism Matrix. Cambridge: Polity, 2010.

Hacking, I. “Autism Fiction: A Mirror of an Internet Decade?” University of Toronto Quarterly 79, no. 2 (2010): 632-655.

Murray, Stuart. Representing Autism : Culture, Narrative, Fascination. Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2008.

Nadesan, Majia Holmer. Constructing Autism. London: Routledge, 2005.

Silverman, Chloe. Understanding Autism : Parents, Doctors, and the History of a Disorder. Princeton, N.J. ; Woodstock: Princeton University Press, 2011.


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Thoughts on Awkward

Every language has those words, and plenty of them, that can’t really be reduced to their translations or dictionary definitions. To be fair, that’s the case with most words. Meanings derive from context; from the intentions of the speaker and from the connotations they raise in the listener.

Words have specific histories. Sometimes their meanings depend on the intonations in which they are used, or from the body language or facial expressions that accompany them. Sometimes words can even mean two exactly opposite things. ‘Cleave’ is the classic example in English, but even think of the word ‘love’: ‘I love Lisa’, means one thing. Now think of the same utterance spoken with eyes rolled: ‘Yeah, I love Lisa’; which effectively means that my feelings towards Lisa are less than positive.

Don’t you just love these sorts of ambiguities?

Anyway, in context, most words always mean more (or less) than their dictionary definitions would let on. Which is what makes them so interesting and valuable. And the best of these are basically like really good clues, to put it simply, about what matters to a given set of people, what drives them, how they see the world.

So anthropologists trying to make sense of a society or culture different than their own often choose such words to focus on. A great recent example is found in Gabriella Coleman’s fantastic book on hacker culture – Hacker, hoaxer, Whistleblower, Spy – where she devotes a lot of much deserved attention to the concept of lulz. What are the lulz? Well I could try and explain, but I would be doing it an injustice. Coleman uses dozens of pages to explain the concept of lulz, and she does this for a reason; the word means much more than any simple sentence or paragraph could convey. And in meaning as much as it does, it teaches us a great deal about the people using it.

In other words, if you’re gonna try and understand what motivates Anonymous, for example, you need to first appreciate, in a very nuanced way, the meaning of the concept of the lulz.

Another great example of such a deep engagement with a single word or phrase is from this lecture by anthropologist Michael Wesch, where he presents the audience with ‘a brief history of whatever’. ‘Whatever’ is not merely an extremely common – and therefore meaningful – word, but its shifting meanings can also be used as a metaphor for the process of shifting sensibilities among young Americans over the past couple of generations. And it’s a great lecture anyway, so give it a look.

Or not. Whatever.

So anyway, there’s at least one such word in the English vocabulary whose story has not yet been told (well, as far as I know, anyway). A word that’s not quite definable, not quite translatable, and at the same time extremely common and meaningful. A word that if I could get my head around it, I feel, I could claim to know a bit more about the people who use it. A word that is just familiar enough to me that I can use it myself in a way that may seem natural; but that is at the same time just foreign enough that when I’m using it I always feel like I’m experimenting just a little bit.

Like someone is likely jump out from behind a plant or something and say “nope, sorry, you’re using it wrong’.

And wouldn’t that be awkward.

Awkward. So many people use this word, in oh so many contexts. But what does it mean? What do they mean?

My initial intention in this post was to produce, similar to Wesch, a brief history of ‘awkward’. But this would take more time and resources than I can currently invest. So instead, I just thought I’d lay out some thoughts about this concept, in a very unsystematic way. Basically what I’m wondering is what motivations, sensibilities, imaginations, concerns and values are in action when someone describes something or someone (or crucially, themselves) as awkward? defines it as any one of the follows: lacking skill or dexterity; lacking grace or ease in movement; lacking social graces or manners; hard to deal with; difficult; requiring skill, tact, or the like; and finally, embarrassing or inconvenient; caused by lack of social grace.

I know I know, nothing is more of a cliché than spicing an article with a dictionary definition. I can’t believe I just did that. Jesus. How awkward.

So anyway, according to the dictionary, awkward means either a lack, or the consequence of a lack. Meh. Come on. It has to mean more than that doesn’t it?

I think any one of these definitions tells a partial story at best. Not every lack of skill is seen as awkward. Not even every embarrassment or inconvenience caused by a lack of social skill is considered awkward either. When ‘awkward’ is uttered, an affect is invoked that goes beyond, I think, embarrassment or discomfort, or at the very least denotes a very specific incidence of those.

Urban Dictionary already tells a slightly different story. Not constrained to the formal rules of dictionary definitions (whatever those may be), this user-generated source often provides more intuitive and immediate definitions that somehow manage to capture not only the meaning of a word, but also its essence; its spirit, if you will. 2235 users ‘liked’ the following definition of awkward (as opposed to 417 who took the trouble to actively ‘dislike’ it): “passing a homeless person on your way to a coin star machine.”

I love this definition (no rolling of the eyes needed), because it somehow represents that ineffable nature of awkwardness; it’s not necessarily a ‘lack’ of anything, nor the result of such a lack. It’s just what sometimes happens between people when certain situations occur. Oh and confusingly, it’s also the situations themselves. So passing a homeless person while holding a bucket of change is awkward. And the feeling you get when this happens is awkward. And the look he gives you is awkward. And you’re a pretty awkward person, anyway.

Most people hate awkward moments. But others seem to relish in them. Some are oblivious to them. Some are hypersensitive to them. But whatever their affinity toward them, a lot of people seem to describe so many of their experiences, as well as events and people, as being awkward.

How did awkward become such a common phrase? Well, I just checked it on Ngram, and it turns out that awkward isn’t really any more common than it used to be, at least in terms of how many times it appears in books. But I think I can explain it in one of two ways (or both). First, awkward in the sense of weird, unexpected or uncomfortable isn’t new at all, and has been around for ages. At the same time, ‘awkward’ in what I suspect, at least, is a rather recent usage (as in meaning that social awkwardness of embarrassingly not knowing what to say), would not necessarily find its way into so many book. Or maybe I’m just wrong and this meaning is just not recent at all. I don’t know.


So why do we say awkward so much? And if it’s such an important word, why doesn’t it exist in Hebrew, for example?

As per the first question, I guess it all comes does to that feeling many of us share of wanting to always be in sync, socially speaking. Always wanting to know the right thing to say. Always wanting to be told what we expect to hear. Always wanting to have a grasp of the situation. And when those expectations aren’t met, like when social rules are broken, or when we’re at a loss for words, a certain kind of feeling ensues. A feeling of powerlessness; of confusion or anxiety. And at that moment, everything sort of feels like it’s falling apart. Not only our composure (“It just felt awkward”), or the interaction itself (“we just had a really awkward conversation”) but our whole selves (“I can’t believe how awkward I was”), as well as the person in front of us (“and she was awkward too, by the way”).

Until eventually nothing makes sense any more, and everything just turns into a big pile of awkwardness (“I dunno, everything just turned into a big pile of awkwardness”).

There’s really no reason to think this feeling is in any way new. And while I do suspect it’s slightly more common in some cultural contexts than others, I don’t see why it should be more common in English speaking countries than in Israel, for example. So what’s going on? Why is it still so popular in English, yet non-existent in at least one other language (and probably many more)?

I think the explanation would have something to do not with the existence of the feeling itself, but with the attention given to it. What is unique in the word ‘awkward’ is not the fact that it describes a certain experience; but that it turns it, very consciously and deliberately, into an on object of reflection. Basically, it allows us to talk about the feeling at length. To tell stories about it. To delve into it.

In other words, English speakers have been going through a process of fetishizing this uncomfortable experience now known as awkwardness. Searching for ‘awkward’ on google bring up the following results (I’m not including results from online dictionaries): A TV series actually named Awkward. A YouTube video entitled 18 Awkward Hairstyles That’ll Make You Smile. A radio program about Six awkward moments at Jay Z’s Tidal relaunch. A photo blog post entitled The most awkward hover hands in awkward dude history, and a website called Awkward Family Photos.

I see a pattern here. Do you? Awkward has become a form of entertainment.

Certain TV shows have made noting socially awkward moments into an art form. Seinfeld is a classic example. But as much as its creators relished the humour in those moments, it was Larry David’s later project, Curb Your Enthusiasm, that really sunk its teeth into them. Some scenes in Curb literally make me cringe with discomfort. This happens especially when Larry David’s character disregards all the rules of appropriate social conduct. He knew this would have this effect, of course. That is what he was going for. And yet I love this show. As he hoped people would.

Awkwardness is mesmerising. It is entertaining. It is also, currently, marketable. We just can’t get enough.

So where does this take us? I’m not sure, to be honest. Maybe us English speakers have gotten so used to thinking deliberately and explicitly about the nuances of social interaction; while at the same time growing ever more sensitive to failures in that regard; that the concept of awkward just emerged to the A-List of popular words as a result.

And as always, between and betwixt emerging lay sensibilities, cowers the anthropologist in pursuit of even the vaguest of valuable propositions. I dunno. Whatever. God that’s awkward.