When we first stumbled into Rowan’s love of my neighbor's mare Betsy, which led to him becoming verbal in the saddle, and which in turn led to us realizing that it was the rhythmic hip rocking causing him to produce oxytocin that was creating the speech, which led to Horse Boy Method and Movement Method…we were also working with a whole bunch of small animals, not just horses.
Rowan’s reaction to the dogs, pygmy goats, chickens and other small animals we began – at his direction – to acquire, was something extraordinary. He would search out deep pressure with Bo, the incredibly patient half German pointer, half springer spaniel, by giving him long extended hugs, his body lying in full contact with Bo’s in the same way he would lie on the horse Betsy’s back., using her like a big old couch. When he did this with either Bo or Betsy, all his agitated stims would just go away.
Interestingly, the same thing happened with the other children we worked with – not just Rowan.
Then, when Rowan was wanting to explore the woods, Bo would be there trotting at his side, a protector, an advocate and a sniffer out of interesting stuff fellow compadre. When Rowan threw something, Bo would retrieve it: cause and effect. When people wanted to interact socially, it would be Bo who would break the ice. Rowan would follow.
Around this time we were talking with neuroscientists trying to understand why Rowan was so verbal and communicative when he rode, and why he was so happy when he lay on her back – and they were helping us to understand the oxytocin effect, and how the oxytocin got rid of the excessive cortisol in his brain, which was blocking the intellect.
So we got curious – started researching oxytocin in general – and found that there have been a series of studies, at Durham University, North Carolina, Monash University in Australia and other universities worldwide, into the connection between dogs and oxytocin. It seems that physical contact with a dog – or any pet, most especially soft furred pets – produced instant oxytocin in people, not just autistic kids. Even looking into your dog’s eyes can trigger this oxytocin effect by up to 300 per cent in humans.
Then there were the pygmy goats Daisy and Blackie. They brought out Rowan’s mischievous side. Mischief and humor are perspective taking. Perspective taking is theory of mind – a crucial milestone in brain development, where you realize that others think different thought to you and that you must modify your behavior accordingly. Young autists often come very late to theory of mind (btw. it helps being married to a professor of Educational Psychology, who schooled me and the rest of the Horse Boy team in all this stuff). Rowan learned how to be charmingly naughty. He would love to bring the baby goats into the house. Kristin, his mom, didn’t want him to do that, because they pooped everywhere. “No baby goats in the house!” she’d say.
Then we’d come into the house and see a little trail of goat poop trailing across the living room, heading up the stairs, along the landing and finally into Rowan’s room, where we’d find him tucked up in bed with Daisy and Blackie, giggling: “No baby goats in the hou-ouse!” and Kristin had to laugh.
We now use pygmy goats in most of our sessions – they are as social as the dogs, actively engage in rule based games and if any child gets too rough they simply disappear. If you have a large enough fence around your yard we really can’t recommend pygmy goats enough.
Finally there were the reptiles. Rowan became fascinated with snakes and lizards quite early. It was a sensory thing. He loved their smoothness, their dry, silky feel, and their calmness (we only had calm ones). To this day a large bearded dragon and several leopard geckos occupy terrariums in his room, but we have noticed that when we bring the reptiles out for children – most especially our autistic young adults – they always respond well. Who would have thought that reptiles would be so calming = but they are.
And finally there were the tarantula and emperor scorpion…just kidding. Rowan did in fact have one of each but they never came out for playdates with the other kids.
So…some of the first advice I give when newly diagnosed families approach me for advice is – get a dog. A calm, non-yappy one, preferably with very short hair that doesn’t shed much. The dog will give oxytocin, will force you all outside for hours a day for exercise, which is BDNF (brain derived neurotrophic factor) – so you get smarter when you have a dog. It will model social skills, give amazing sensory therapy and be an advocate and protector for your child. And it’s a relationship. A real friend that is not as confusing as a human with all those crazily complicated facial expressions and nuanced moods.
And if for some reason you can’t own one, there is a growing network of day leasing going on for therapy and service dogs that is filling the need for people living in small apartments and other non-dog friendly environments so that your child can spend a certain number of hours each day with the dog of choice in your local park. You’ll never look back.
P.S. – But if you can, get a pygmy goat. Maybe two…