Pets can help autistic children

Updated on May 30, 2007 04:14 PM IST
Animal Assisted Therapy is now being explored as a viable option for children with autism.
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Hindustan Times | BySai Raja, Mumbai

Like most autistic children, nine-year-old Biyanka Masand used to find it hard to express herself to those around her. Communicating her needs and feelings, as well as understanding those of others,was next to impossible for her. At the Prasanna Autism Centre in Pune, where she goes for therapy, her constant crying was a matter of concern for her teachers.

But things started looking up once Sophie came into the picture about a year ago. Biyanka loves spending time with Sophie and learns more about communicating in that playtime than in the classroom. She has also started picking up and using newwords like ‘throw’ and ‘ball’. So strong is the attachment between Biyanka and the black playful Labrador that she refuses to go to class until she greets Sophie first.

Padmaja Godbole, the centre’s director, says Biyanka’s crying has reduced by almost 70 per cent in the last year. She says that Sophie has helped bring about positive changes in other autistic children at the centre as well.

Sophie and other dogs like her play an important role in Animal Assisted Therapy(AAT) that is increasingly being used to help children like Biyanka. “It’s the scientific and systematic use of animals as a therapeutic medium for the mentally and physically ill. The natural capability of an animal to love and to heal is utilised here in a scientificway,” says Minal Kavishwar, a clinical psychologist, and therapy dog trainer. Kavishwar is probably the first to use AAT and document its results in India through the Animal Angels Foundation that she established.

“A spastic child, who isnot able to move his hands, may not be motivated
enough to do so when asked to move them for an exercise. But when an animal therapist assists him, and the same exercise becomes part of a game of “fetch” with the therapy dog, the child will be motivated to lift the ball with his hands and throw it towards the dog,” says Kavishwar, as she explains howthe therapy works.

Animal Assisted Therapy is a relatively new area, having first been developed by child psychologist Boris Levinson in 1962. But it’s increasingly being used and researched across the world today. “We have known of the therapy as it’s used elsewhere, but Kavishwar is the first to use it in India.AAT is especially useful to autistic individuals and those going through depression.

The unconditional love and companionship that a dog is able to give is at the very basis of the therapy,” says Dr Rajendra Barve, president of the Bombay Psychiatric Society.

In India, the use of AAT first began as an experiment, four years ago, at the Dharmaveer Anand Dighe Jidd Municipal School for the Physically and Mentally Disabled in Thane, when the school’s principal Shyamashree Bhonsle bought a Labrador pup Kutty for her students. “Many of my students have a below-average IQ, are autistic or face other physical challenges.They don’t have a support system at home and go through many emotional problems, which they are unable to express. I just wanted to seewhetherKutty’s company helped them in anyway. I never thought of training Kutty as a therapy dog,” she says.

But after a chance meeting with Kavishwar, Bhonsle agreed to let Kutty be trained and observe the results of the therapy.They began by letting the children get used to Kutty and spending time with her. Gradually, Kavishwar also identified children who were most in need of help and started having separate therapy sessions for them with Kutty.

“Ramesh, a mentally retarded child from Jidd School, who was very violent with his classmates, has now learned to be gentle to therapy dogKutty.He has learned that she also gets hurt and will not play if he is too harsh to her. In the beginning it was difficult for him to control his urge to be violent but he has now calmed down. His progressmakes us feel that he can grow to handle the dog sensitively. This sensitivity will, of course, be extended to his fellow human beings too,” observes Kavishwar, in the documentation of her experiment with AAT.

Kutty is now part of the daily school routine. She is a constant companion of the students, from prayertime to games period and even in class, and keeps them in great spirits.

“It’s easy for them to feel low because of their conditions and Kutty helps them overcome that. For many of the children who hated to attend school, she is now motivation to attend class everyday,” says Bhonsle.

Since then,many special schools like the Sri Ma Special School, Thane, Prasanna Autism Centre, Sindhu Vidyalaya and the Bal Kalyan Sanstha in Pune, have begun using therapy dogs with their students. Kavishwar now wants to extend AAT to old age homes and cancer patients as well. However, it’s most effective when combined with other therapies.

“Most autistic children have severe problem with any kind of communication. But since we have begun using our therapy dog Sophie during speech therapy sessions, many students are showing marked improvement. They can express themselves better, are learning to talk and are coming out of their shells,” says Padmaja

Perhaps Mary’s little lamb should have been allowed to stay in school,
after all.

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