Animals and Autism

My dog, Callie, was hanging out on her round green bed when our friends’ kids—a two-year-old and a three-year-old—ran over and hopped on the bed to be next to her (well, more like on top of her). My husband and I were throwing a small dinner party and the toddlers were enamored with the dog. They crawled along the floor with Callie, petted her back, ears, tail, and paws, fed her way too many treats, and followed her wherever she would go. After the guests left, I watched Callie, happy but exhausted, settle down on the top landing of the stairs. Peace and quiet. The hair around her almond brown eyes and Hershey kiss colored nose was turning gray. At age 11 (77 in dog years), I wasn’t sure what kind of time she had left.

“Hang on sweet girl,” I said. “Stay healthy.”

She's a dog who loves kids, and I thought about how much I want her to be around when Ron and I have our own. The impact a dog can have on a child’s life is significant. Or, as chronicled in Monica Holloway’s new book Cowboy & Wills, seemingly miraculous.

Wills was diagnosed with autism when he was three. The next day, his mom took Wills to buy fish. Hamsters and hermit crabs followed. Then a rabbit. Animals seemed to have a calming effect on Wills (his parents insisted on “no medications” to treat autism). Wills loved all his pets—toting them around in portable travel cases to his appointments with specialists and other outings—but his “zoo” didn’t feel complete without a puppy. One Christmas, Wills’ wish came true. He got a female golden retriever that he named Cowboy. The two became best friends.

During the day, when Wills was trying to adjust to “mainstream” school, he worked with an aide, a yoga teacher named Lynn who helped Wills relax (one day Wills’ mom walked into a room to find Wills meditating on the floor with cucumber slices covering his eyes). At the end of the day, Cowboy was waiting in the schoolyard to greet him. That’s where Wills slowly learned to socialize. The entire class of children would run over to see Cowboy, helping Wills learn how to play with other kids. But that wasn’t the only breakthrough Cowboy helped Wills accomplish.

Over the course of time, Cowboy showed Wills how to have fun in water (pools, baths, and showers can be sensory overload to a child with autism), sleep alone in his room, and navigate the use of public bathrooms. When Cowboy got sick, the roles reversed and Wills learned how to be a supporter and caretaker.

Cowboy & Wills by Monica Holloway (Simon & Schuster, $24)


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