Tag Archives: Ethnography

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.


Related posts:

Being in-between


Am I studying autism to contribute knowledge to the discipline of anthropology? Or am I using anthropology to better understand autism? These two approaches – these two options – are not necessarily mutually exclusive; in fact they have shown over the past couple of years to be quite in concert, at least as far as I was concerned. And yet often, I’m faced with the dilemma of having to present my work as either one or the other. For example, I recently had to decide: should I end my article with “and this is why studying autism offers extremely useful insights to our understanding of human interaction”? Or do I end it with “and this is why anthropology is so indispensable for our understanding of autism”?  (I’m paraphrasing, of course)

Most social anthropologists aren’t faced with a similar dilemma. Someone researching healing practices in Ghana, for example, is quite explicitly – as far as I can tell – working to understand (a) the people of Ghana, (b) Healing practices and (c) human behaviour. They would often have different research communities for each of these topics (the latter just being ‘general social anthropology’ or something to that extent): conferences would be organized, and journals would be published that address each of these concerns. And that would be fine. Natural, even. I don’t recall West Africanists agonizing over their role and aims, wondering if they’re doing one or the other. They’re simply doing both, and that’s what’s expected. So they’re using the accumulated knowledge from anthropology to understand the specific people they’re working with, while at the same time using specific knowledge they acquired about the people they’re studying in order to add to the cumulative anthropological body of knowledge. That’s pretty much how the system is meant to work. No problem.

So why does my case feel a bit different? Well, to be honest, I could simply be wrong about my not sharing this dilemma with others. That is very likely. Or it may just be that I’m biased into thinking that my area of study is so exceptional that it raises exceptional dilemmas, but that in fact, there is no dilemma to speak of. It’s all in my head. Again, that could very well be the case. Yet none of this means that the third option, namely that I am right in feeling that I am in a somewhat unusual position among my colleagues, is necessarily wrong. And I think that perhaps I can explain why my dilemma is, well, if not entirely unique, then at the very least more immediate and present.

Because this is where the difference lies: experts on healing practices in Ghana are expected to be social anthropologists. It’s quite unlikely that they will be anything else except social anthropologists (well they could be local healers, of course, but that’s a whole different story). And so when a person becomes an expert on healing practices in Ghana, they’re entering a very well-defined social role; hence the ready-made conference titles, specific journals and so forth. Yes, there would be other experts in the field; cultural psychologists, ethno-botanists, folklorists etc. But the social anthropologist’s position in that particular setting is more or less undisputed. Their authority as experts on healing practices in Ghana is grounded in their disciplinary tradition and is pretty much taken for granted.

But when a social anthropologist, such as myself, is studying autism, that’s a whole different matter. And I’m not saying autism is uncharted territory for people of my discipline (it’s not), only that our authority in this area is very far from established. Experts on autism are, traditionally, psychiatrists, psychologists, neuroscientists, geneticists, speech and occupational therapists and educators – and that’s just one brand of experts, namely those coming from the world of academic research.  So when a social anthropologist – and I’m speculating here – makes a claim about autism, it is never merely academic; instead, it is very much political. It is an unapologetic attempt to put one’s foot in the door, into a room already fully occupied by others. It requires him or her to cry out almost explicitly – “I have something to say about autism, and I assert the authority to do so”.  This, as far as I can tell, is quite different than if this same anthropologist was studying healing practices in Ghana, they would not only be happily invited into the room; they would be the one guarding the door.

So my dilemma is not just an intellectual one. Rather (as is so often the case) it is a social and political one, and has everything to do with the system of academic disciplines. Which group do I consider myself a part of? Am I a social anthropologist? Well then why aren’t I doing fieldwork in Africa, for example (some would ask)? Oh, I’m an autism researcher?  Well then what’s all this business with participant-observation, relationality, and constructivism (some would ask)? Occupying this position of in-betweenness forces me, it would appear, to choose sides. But even if I do choose just one, there would be some explaining to do on my part. And seeing as I actually want to occupy both positions, I need to work all the harder to justify my claims and arguments, positioning them both within the discipline (social anthropology) and within the field (autism research). Which if not an insurmountable challenge, is definitely something that takes some effort.

How many participants have you got?

It’s happened to me several times recently that when telling someone about my research project (I’m doing an ethnographic study on the emotional landscapes of autistic adults in the UK), I was confronted with: “oh cool… so how many participants have you got?” It’s a relevant question, of course, both fair and valid, which is exactly what makes it so difficult to address. Because it puts me in a position where I have to explain something that to me is very fundamental, but to others often sounds quite odd; that the number of my “research participants” is (a) undetermined and (b) not particularly important.

The simple answer is that social anthropology just doesn’t really work like that. We don’t normally count our participants (well alright, sometimes we do, but for different purposes such as getting grant money etc.) We don’t really even define the people contributing to our study as ‘participants’ in the first place – instead they would be our interlocutors, collaborators, informants. This is more than semantics – this represents a very different relationship between researcher and contributor than that which is imagined when we speak of ‘research participants’. Our interlocutors are those people who have very kindly agreed to let us in to their homes, to become part of their communities, and to join their activities so that we could understand them better. So to be honest, if anyone is ‘participating’ it’s not them; it’s us.

Also our research setting has no defined space or structure; you don’t get to invite someone to your lab at 4pm to do an experiment, or to get people to answer your questionnaires. Data is generated much more spontaneously than that, After all, every conversation we have, however short, is data. Being taught how to make a surfboard is data. Having a pint of beer is data. So in this highly unstructured research environment, who would even count as a research participant?

In my case, I suppose the answer would be anyone who has ever enlightened me in any way about my research topic. People I interviewed, of course, but also people I exchanged emails with, people I chatted with at social gatherings, people who wrote books, blogs, or information brochures… In other words, hundreds and hundreds of people. But I don’t think that’s what the person asking me about my study meant. I suppose she was thinking more in terms of an exact number. A sample size. An ‘n’.

But like I said, I don’t have a sample size. I can’t really even say I have a sample. I realize to some people this very statement is quite mind-blowing. “No sample? So how can you tell if your study is at all representative?”

And that’s just the thing: Representativity works differently in social anthropology. In general, we just don’t quite buy into that whole idea that the more people you talk to, the more likely you are to capture that big whole. I’ll try and explain. Let’s say I did a study on 1,000 people from – I don’t know – let’s say Crete. And I might have found that, for example, 68% of Cretans support, say, controlled immigration. That’s a useful finding in many ways. But as a social anthropologist, I’m not particularly interested in this figure. Instead, I’m much more interested in learning about the variety of opinions, the plurality of voices, the disagreement, the dilemmas, the change of heart. I want to understand how different people interpret the very meaning of the concept of immigration; what connotations and emotions does it raise in them? does it arouse fear? Uncertainty? Hope? When thinking about immigration, does one look back into the past, or forward into the future? Does one see immigration as a moral issue? An economic issue? An identity issue? And at what point, and under what conditions, can ‘one of them’ finally become ‘one of us’?

The thing is that there are hundreds of thousands of people living in Crete. And each person is unique. Each person has their own singular, complex, intricate and subtle reasons for doing what they do, saying what they say, and thinking what they think. In trying to capture all those differences, a sample of 1000 is just as inadequate as a sample of 3.

And yet there are similarities, of course; Cretans all live on the same island, speak the same language, are subjected to the same laws, and are governed by the same people and institutions. Understanding the delicate and complicated mechanism by which those similarities have affected each of them individually would provide the very best answers, I think, on who Cretans actually are as a group. And to understand this process, this mechanism, you don’t need to talk to 1000 people. Potentially, you could do that by only talking to 10, as long as you’re taking your good time and asking the right questions.

I’m not saying large scale studies are inevitably blind to nuance. I don’t mean to be making such an overarching generalization. What I am saying, however, is that when nuance is all what you care about, you tend to give much less regard to quantity, and much more attention to quality. When every new conversation I have with the same person consistently reveals new insights, new understandings, new knowledge; I’m absolutely in no rush to go looking for someone else to talk to.

Which leads me back to my own study. Studies on autism often have dozens, hundreds, and even thousands of participants. And yet there are millions of autistic people out there. Can a study that considers the genetic / brain imaging / social-economic data of 10,000 autistic people contribute to our understanding of what autism is? Of course it can. But can it help us understand what being autistic is like? Can it help us understand what autism means to the very people who are themselves autistic? Not really, no. However an extremely well-told, sensitive and nuanced study of even just one autistic person can do exactly that. Just think of Temple Grandin, Dawn Prince-Hughes, or any other autistic author who has written so beautifully about their own lives, expanding our understanding in ways that large studies never did.

As I go about my study, day in day out, trying to understand as much as I can about what being autistic is like, I find it most useful to focus on those highly specific incidences where the interplay of many different circumstances create meaningful and unique experiences. For that reason, yes, I do find it helpful to speak to people of different genders, age groups, physical ability, marital status etc. But that’s all that this is – helpful. It’s not crucial. After all, all I’m doing is looking for examples – elaborate examples – to would help me make sense of things. And there are only so many examples you really need, provided they’re good enough, before it’s just up to you to make of them what you can.

Related posts:

Going Native

A once common ethos in social anthropology has been to “go native”, namely, to try one’s best to adopt the habits, norms and lifestyles – and even the values and beliefs to the extent that it is possible – of the people one studies. While “going native” is still often regarded as a prerequisite of good ethnographic work, this trope has since been problematized in a great many ways, and its meaning has gradually changed.

Primarily, it has been noted that the anthropologist – like any other person – always carries with him/her their own social and cultural baggage, and so despite their very best efforts, that baggage is always and inevitably going to shape their understanding of a particular cultural system, phenomenon, or event. In other words, one can never entirely ‘go native’.

But although this goal of going native is clearly unattainable, the anthropologist is still expected to give it their best shot. For instance, if everyone in the village is going fishing, the anthropologist needs to get on a boat with the rest of them. If people around are fasting to commemorate a historical event, the anthropologist should do likewise. And if the general belief is that ancestral spirits cause disease, the anthropologist, upon falling ill, might be wise to consult a local healer as to what the cause of his/her specific ailment may be.

The idea is that while the great distance between people from different places and backgrounds can never be completely erased – or in other words, truly ‘becoming native’ isn’t possible – this distance can certainly be bridged to some extent. That’s what social anthropology is all about, after all. And to bridge this distance, one must actively seek ways to come to appreciate the experiences and perspectives of those one wishes to understand. If not to become them, then at least to pretend to become them for long enough to get an insight into their motivations and reason.

This issue has haunted me for some time as I was doing my fieldwork. Because while cultural traits can perhaps be partly acquired through learning a language, studying texts, engaging in specific kinds of labour, or assuming a particular social role in the community, my study does not focus on cultural differences. My study focuses on neurological differences. So what do I do? How can anyone participate in ‘being autistic?’, if they’ve not been born with that particular neurological variance? How does one adopt a form of difference, when that form of difference is embedded in the brain?

The short answer is “you can’t”, but I don’t think this matter should be resolved quite this quickly.

In my post about the film Playtime, I discussed my experience of watching the film as instrumental in my understanding of what being autistic might be like: the irritation by noise; the disorientation; the confusion; and the frequent sense of inconsistency and incoherence. It demonstrated that it was possible for a NT to perhaps get a glimpse into a neurodiverse experience.

So I began to pay more attention to these and similar sensations in my own everyday life. Take noise, for example. I used to find it very easy to block out background noises. It’s a question of attention, after all, and I simply focused mine on the sounds that were relevant. Gradually, however, while I was doing my fieldwork, I began to consciously shift my attention outwards, and effectively force myself to absorb more and more sounds from the environment; the traffic, the fridge, falling rain, anything. Gradually the world – my world – had become a rather noisy place, at least as long as I was paying attention to it. But fascinatingly, what started as an exercise, has become rather permanent – I have trained myself to become more sensitive to auditory stimuli.

The other day I was sitting in a busy restaurant in nice company, and I found it extremely difficult to concentrate on the conversation. The loud music and the constant chatter impressed so heavily on me, that I began to develop a headache. Moreover, distracted by all the noise, I couldn’t articulate myself as well as I wanted to. After a while, the loud sounds were all I could hear.

Mind you, I’m not saying “this is what being autistic feels like”. I have talked to enough autistic people to know that there is much, much more to it than this. And anyway, I doubt my auditory experience was even nearly as uncomfortable as it can be for so many people out there. Not even close, as far as I can tell.

But it’s a window, you know?

Because here is where this small discomfort led to a rather significant insight: what can I do about the fact that the noise is making me uncomfortable, ineloquent, and slightly ill? Should I excuse myself and step outside (not a huge improvement, as I have also become more sensitized to the heat and air pollution)? Should I try and share my discomfort and apologize, which may result in my being stigmatized in unexpected ways? Should I suggest that we speed up our lunch and go find some place quieter? None of these options is ideal, and each would involve some breach of social etiquette. I was trapped.

Let me be clear: I wasn’t suffering. Mostly, I was enjoying myself. It would be inexcusable of me to claim that I understood what being autistic was like at that moment. However, I could also imagine it being ten times worse. And I could imagine finding it that much more difficult to navigate the social dimensions of this event. And I could imagine the stress, even panic, of trying to assess how each of my possible choices would turn out.

No, I wasn’t “becoming native”, but I did manage to briefly pretend that I was, if only for the sake of my own education.

Related posts: