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Children with Autism relate to animals

Apr 17, 2010 | By Michelle Rivera

How the 'Reading to Dogs' program is especially helpful for Autistic children.

Boy reading to a therapy dogDogs perform many services for people and have been doing so for a long time. From sniffing out bombs to helping autistic children read, dogs truly are mans' best friend.

HBO recently aired a movie about the life of Temple Grandin, an autistic woman who steadfastly refused to go away when cattlemen and others thought her strange and sentimental. Known for her efforts to design slaughterhouses and feedlots that are considered more humane than they once were, Temple Grandin has written books on her perception of the world. In her books, Grandin describes how she sees the world in pictures. Lacking linguistic and vocabulary skills, animals also see the world that way.

Seeing in Pictures

Could this explain why autistic children are taking so well to a program that pairs dogs with reluctant readers? Is there a connection between the two that the average person cannot see? It’s hard to understand why these programs are so effective, but anecdotal evidence is still evidence, and when you see it, you can’t deny it’s there.

Avoid Touching 

Autistic children generally do not like to be touched and are easily agitated. So before beginning a session with an autistic child, tutors will ask the dog to lie down and allow the child to gently stroke his fur. Sometimes the child is asked to place her ear against the dog's chest to hear his heartbeat, feel the rise and fall of the dog’s breathing, and get a sensation of intimacy. If that technique is too “up close and personal” for the child, the tutor may use a stethoscope.

The Reading Session

Boy reading to a therapy dogThis exercise helps to calm the child and ready him or her for the reading session. Once the child demonstrates serenity, the session may begin. The tutor will arrange a pre-selection of books and ask the child to choose one. This serves to make the student feel as if he’s in charge. The tutor then settles in next to the child, and listens as the child sounds out his words and sentences. If the child needs help, the tutor gently corrects or assists him but only upon request. It’s important for the reader to demonstrate that he or she knows the letters and can deliver so as to build up his confidence.

Why it Works

The READING dog program works so well because children relate better to animals than they do to people. Animals expect nothing from the autistic child, and since there is no pressure, the child responds. A child who is autistic knows that he or she is different somehow, and this knowledge can sometimes cause him to withdraw. Reading aloud to a friendly, gentle, non-threatening dog helps to bring him out of his private internal world.

Not Just Dogs; Not Just Autism

In some cases, miniature horses are also being employed to listen to stories read by children. And it’s not only autistic children who can benefit from this program, children with heavy accents or who have a great deal of trouble sounding out their words also benefit from a Reading Dog program.

There are several programs but the gold standard is a program called R.E.A.D., for Reading Educational Assistance Dogs. R.E.A.D. can be found on the web at or through the Delta Society website.

About the author:
Michelle Rivera is the author of several books on dogs including Hospice Hounds - Animals and healing at the borders of death; Canines in the Classroom - Raising humane children through interactions with animals; Do Dogs Have Belly Buttons? - 100 questions and answers about dogs; On Dogs and DyingThe Simple Little Vegan Dog and The Simple Little Vegan Slow Cooker.
She is also an essayist, published in the vegetarian essay book, Voices from the Garden, as well as free-lance writer/editor and blogger with PetaPrime. Michelle lives in South Florida with her husband, John, her "pack" of one dog and three cats. She is the mother of two and grandmother of three.
Click here to contact or read more articles by Michelle Riveria.

Tags : children, kids, reading, reading for dogs, program, animal therapy, autism

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