I’ve long wondered how, or even if, Ben would connect with animals. There is a great deal of research which supports the idea that children with autism benefit greatly from having therapy animals, particularly dogs, as part of their service team. While he doesn’t run away scared, Ben has yet to really connect with our dog, Tinker. Perhaps it’s because Tinker isn’t a trained therapy dog. Perhaps it’s because Tinker is a very large puppy and as such has a great deal of energy which she struggles to keep contained when around the kids. Hmmm….sounds like she and Ben may have a bit in common. Or perhaps, he just doesn’t connect with dogs.
I recently read an article on www.drivelivestock.com entitled Life Lessons from Livestock. I was raised on a diversified livestock and grain farm in southern Illinois. I know the joys of raising steers as bottle calves and the heartbreak of sending them off to market. I still remember riding mom’s favorite boar as if he were a horse, as well as the tears that fell when he, too, went to market. I can recall the names of every “project animal” I raised and fun stories to go with each one. I know the impact animals had on my life, in shaping who I am and how I manage things, but I still wonder if our son will be anything like me in that regard, not just because of autism, but because everyone is different.
The article relates the experiences of a high school ag teacher and how some students with autism showed tremendous progress with life skills when coupled with an animal which was theirs to care for and show. So many aspects of his project carried over into everyday life: Caring for an animal lead to self-care skills. Tending to an animal’s living quarters lead to a cleaner bedroom. Presenting an animal in the show ring and answering a judge’s questions lead to better social skills.
It’s all quite amazing and so intriguing to this animal agriculture rooted momma, but I still wondered, “What about our son?”
Our oldest three kids have gotten involved with the beef cattle industry thanks to 4-H and FFA. This has changed a few things in our family life. Lazy Saturday or Sunday afternoons used to be spent all curled up under blankets watching a family movie. Now, it’s a family effort to get the bedding changed and cattle washed down. This might sound a little like work, and it is, but it is also the basis of some wonderful memories, especially for the kids investing in the animals. We’ve seen the kids grow in their confidence and self-assurance when dealing with the animals and we’ve watched them take pride in their endeavor as they share the ins and outs of it all with their friends, even encouraging them to come on in and pet the animals. Since the weather has warmed up, we’ve even seen our younger two kids, ages 6 and 4, pitch in to help get fresh bedding into the barn, lead them around the lot, and comb the animals. Yes, even Ben.
We spent a great deal of time on these tasks as a family the other day. All seven of us were working either a pitchfork or a rake at the same time for a bit before we took to the divide and conquer method of accomplishing tasks. In all my years of raising cattle, I don’t recall ever having animals this tame – tame enough to leave the gate wide open while bringing in bedding; tame enough to brush and clean without being tied out; tame enough to stand for a six-year-old boy with autism to comb their hair unassisted.
I marveled at the gentleness of both our son, as he instinctively combed up the steer’s belly, just as he had watched his brother, and that of the steer as he just stood and watched Ben do his thing, seemingly listening to his banter.
At one point, Ben said, “Hey, Cow, come give me a hug.”
I had to laugh as Doc turned to Ben because the look on his (the steer’s) face was hilarious. I’m not sure if he actually said, “C’mon over.” or “Dude, I’m a STEER!” but Ben took it as an open invitation and snuggled right up. This moment: Priceless.
I can’t say for sure that helping tend to the cattle will help Ben tend to his own needs, but I do know anything that helps our son engage with us as a family is a keeper in our book!