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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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