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Pets: Powerful therapy in calming children with autism

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Posted: Sunday, December 20, 2009 12:00 am

Javier was absolutely terrified when he had to go into different classrooms. Each year, it meant a new teacher and a whole new group of children. He hated going to school. At the beginning of the year, the teacher would have to sit with Javier outside a new classroom. Inch by inch, day by day, the teacher would slowly move the desk further into the room. It took several days, even weeks, before the student could handle a new class of children. That was until Jack came into the picture.


Jack was a little gray cockatiel. He usually stayed in Room 103. Sometimes, Jack could be seen around the campus with the teacher. Jack loved the children and the children loved him. However, when Jack looked at Javier, somehow a special bond formed between the two.


Jack loved to be with Javier. He would fly to the boy when he saw him in the class. Jack, who later was discovered to be a Jackie, usually could be found sitting on Javier’s shoulder. Javier liked to sit and read books with Jack. He would ask Jack questions and, somehow, the bird knew the answers to all of Javier’s questions. You could hear Javier saying, "Yes Jack, I like the story, too. It is a good book isn’t it." Jack would sit and play with the boy’s curly brown hair making funny noises while the boy read to him. Javier thought Jack was the greatest. The little gray bird would curl up and fall asleep on the boy as he chattered away to the bird.


Javier wanted to be with Jack so much that he learned to overcome his fear of going into new rooms. He knew if he went into a new room and did his work, Jack would be his reward. One day, Javier took Jack to his general ed room. The kids were encouraged to read a new book to their best friend. Everybody knew who that was for Javier. Jack was there and sat quietly in the classroom as Javier read to him a Dr. Seuss book.


Jack was an incredible little creature. The little gray bird was a favorite of all the children in the school. While some younger children could not be around Jack, the older ones were very good with him. Of course, Jack was never left alone with the children. He always had adult supervision.


Jack wasn’t the only animal in Javier’s special ed classroom. Another creature was Penny the guinea pig. The class had Jingles the hamster and Tommy another cockatiel. Tommy would often make the children laugh. You could hear the bird call out "kitty, kitty, kitty" or "pretty bird" while whistling different tunes. There was also Lady, the little Chihuahua who was very protective of everyone in her class.


Each of the different animals calmed the children in various ways. Penny was Jose’s friend. Jose had been a very violent child until Penny joined the class. Letty was a fan of Jingles and would do her work to be with the animal. Lucky was Ian’s favorite animal. He loved the dog and would sit down quietly if Lucky were nearby.


Animals are powerful tools. They help calm children, especially children with autism. Animals also provide therapy and a way for children to focus better. The right animal must be considered for any child. That is also true for children with autism. A wonderful pet to be considered for most children with autism is a dog.


Next Week: Part 2- Autism Service Dogs for Children with Autism


Pamela G. Downing, a special education teacher, can be contacted at

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