After Dylan moved to residential care I told a friend I was thinking about getting a dog.
What do you want to do that for? You’ve just got your life back and you want to tie it down again?
She wasn’t a dog owner herself and wasn’t sympathetic.
I get it. You want something to care for, don’t you? You don’t know what to do with yourself now Dylan has moved out.
It wasn’t that, I protested. It really wasn’t. My identity did not depend on looking after others. People or animals. I just thought my lifestyle would suit a dog.
You mean so you have a dog to take on walks instead of Dylan?
A bit harsh but probably on the nose. I backtracked with what nonchalance I could muster.
Well it’s not going to happen. Dylan’s going to be coming home at weekends.
Autism, Animals and Anxiety
The combination of a dog and Dylan is unthinkable. While there are moving ‘rescue narratives’ of therapy dogs who have transformed the lives of autistic children and adults, narratives of autism and dog anxiety are equally powerful. Dylan is absolutely terrified of dogs and I know from contact with other parents of autistic children he is not alone in this.
It isn’t just dogs, in truth. Dylan isn’t fond of any small animal. He can walk through a field of sheep, cows or horses (I am the one anxiously clinging to Dylan’s arm in a field of cows). He also loves going to the zoo and spends long periods gazing at lions, giraffes and bears. But cats, dogs, rabbits, guinea pigs, chickens, birds and butterflies he cannot tolerate.
Nevertheless, when the children were small we made a point of having family pets. “At the very least”, I told my husband, “they teach children about death”. This was a lesson my daughter duly learned when Dylan dropped her lead soldiers in the fish tank killing the fish (she insisted) from toxin or a blow to the head. Goldfish and Dylan were not a good combination, we realised, when he was caught with the school goldfish in his mouth. Family cats were in less danger from Dylan but provoked high alarm in him. Potter the rabbit (in an outside hutch) was barely tolerated. A dog, I maintained, was out of the question.
Friends with dogs suggested they bring their pooch to visit or that we join them for a walk. Too risky, I contended. Encouraging Dylan to walk near a dog can be difficult if there is something about the dog which unnerves him. I’ve tried to find a pattern but I don’t think there is one. At various times over the years I’ve had the idea that small dogs, black dogs and dogs with protruding muzzles (so you can see their teeth) can especially trigger Dylan. But I may be wrong. Every time I think I’ve established a ‘law of dogs’ to help me to manage Dylan’s anxiety, I discover an exception.
Worry, Worry, Worry
While the calmest of dogs is not enough for Dylan to unlearn fear, the thing that is guaranteed to send his anxiety sky high is an excitable dog. What Dylan cannot cope with is unpredictable behaviour. The reality is, however, that it is usually Dylan’s reactions to dogs which trigger their excitability, creating a situation where both Dylan and dog are leaping about, running in frantic circles, barking or shouting. ‘Worry, worry, worry’ Dylan yells repeatedly. This is Dylan echoing back the final part of the phrase I say to him when we encounter a dog: ’It’s alright, Dylan. Don’t worry’.
It might be the case that I can’t help Dylan and that he doesn’t help himself but dog walkers don’t always help either. Some people realise quickly, through experience or intuition, that Dylan is anxious and that he has autism and/or learning disability. These dog owners do everything right, calling their dog to heel and leashing, holding or carrying the dog while Dylan walks past. Others, however, seem to have no grasp of the situation whatever. A typical (unhelpful, infuriating) response is: ‘Oh s/he’s alright. S/he won’t hurt you. S/he just wants to play’.
I know that dogs become part of the family for their owners but I am always amazed by the tendency of some people to treat their dogs as humans and afford them equal rights with Dylan. I suppose some animal rights activists might disagree but I am of the view that the needs of my anxious, autistic son to access the community safely should have priority over that of a dog’s. I know that most dog owners are responsible and supervise their animals in the community but it is the minority who don’t that helped to create and sustain Dylan’s fear of dogs.
It is not so much encounters in open land that I have in mind. I know that dogs need to have spaces where they can run freely and when I am supporting Dylan in such places I see it as my responsibility to anticipate and head off potential incidents. This involves a range of strategies: pausing; changing course; calling Dylan to my arm; moving Dylan to my other arm; calling to the dog owner to alert them to the situation. And (not so effective) trying to soothe Dylan with “It’s alright Dylan. Don’t worry.” These encounters I can usually manage (though they are wearing). The ones I find much harder to tolerate are dogs running free on beaches between months they are forbidden or on paths where notices clearly require them to be on leads.
But then, shortly before Dylan moved to residential care, Dylan had a curious encounter.
A young woman at a day placement Dylan attended before he moved to his care home had a dog called Coco. The dog would come to meet the young woman at the end of the day so Dylan became familiar with Coco. Over time, Dylan was able to observer how Coco interacted with humans and he started to show an interest. Dylan’s support worker suggested we capitalise on this and see if Dylan might be encouraged to stroke Coco. With the patient understanding of Coco’s owner, Dylan was eventually prepared to do this. Around this time Dylan moved to his care home and didn’t see Coco again.
Curiously, however, Dylan thinks he sees Coco constantly. When we are in the community Dylan shouts ‘Coco, Coco’ at every passing cockapoo. Dylan reliably identifies and responds to this particular breed. Sometimes he wants to say hello. Once, I was convinced Dylan was mistaken and commented to the owner: ‘He’s only usually interested in cockapoos’. But she is a cockapoo, the owner replied. I’ve googled cockapoos and can find nothing in their profile which suggests the breed is particularly suited for people with anxiety so can only assume it was Dylan’s positive experience of Coco which made the difference.
The friend who questioned my reasons for wanting a dog, in the immediate aftermath of Dylan moving to residential care, was right to do so. Since then I’ve realised that if I ever do get a dog it will need to be once I’ve retired; that (never having owned one) I would need to do a lot of research; and that Dylan would need careful introduction. Also, it would probably need to be a cockapoo called Coco.
In the meantime, I told myself recently, it felt a bit hard that I couldn’t have a pet, given that Dylan had moved out of the family home and only visited one night a week. Surely there was something I could do? Some balance to be struck between Dylan’s needs and mine? I had ruled out a dog, but maybe a cat wasn’t out of the question. I explained my situation to the local cat shelter and asked whether they had an older cat who would rather sleep than play. A cat who wouldn’t behave unpredictably or try to interact with Dylan. A cat who wouldn’t mind curling up in a ball at weekends and sleeping through Dylan’s home visit …
Kizzy came to live with us at the end of last year. She is a 20 years old indoor cat whose preferred activity is sleeping on a lap, in a patch of sunlight or on a high platform. Dylan was alarmed initially, yelling worry, worry, worry on his visits. Once he realised that Kizzy barely moves position, however, and has little interest in him, Dylan calmed down. Dylan is still nervous about Kizzy but he can tolerate being in the same room, at a distance, providing I am there to supervise.
Dylan would prefer that Kizzy wasn’t around but a slow old cat is infinitely preferable to Dylan than a youngster. From my perspective, however, the adoption has turned out to be less successful. It quickly became apparent that Kizzy is not a well cat and a trip to the vets confirmed kidney disease. If my friend had been right in her observation that I just wanted something to care for I would perhaps feel better about the situation. As it is, I am trying to comfort myself that older pets also help adults to come to terms with death…
Apart from the photo of Kizzy all images are sourced from the Internet and to the best of my knowledge are not copyright restricted.