68: Do Dogs Have Autism?

68: Do Dogs Have Autism?

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Raising Kids on the Spectrum

Do Dogs Have Autism?

You don’t choose your family.

They are God’s gift to you as you are to them.

~Desmond Tutu

“Mama? Do dogs have autism?”

“I really don’t know . . . but that’s a very good question, Lil.”

It really was a good question from my seven-year-old. Lily is an interesting girl. Headstrong, independent, so full of joy and energy that at times it can turn on her, making her restless and obstinate. She knows what she wants and isn’t afraid to tell you. Of all my kids, she is the most like me in temperament, which sometimes makes her my most difficult. Have you ever tried to butt heads with yourself?

We were new to all things autism when Lily was an infant. I used to worry that I wouldn’t ever be able to give her enough time, energy, attention. That somehow, because her brothers’ needs seemed so enormous, hers were going to be put on the back burner. It took me about five minutes to get over that. Lily never saw autism. Instead, she saw her brothers — her competition. To her they were all on equal ground. If she wanted attention she learned how to get it. I don’t mean that in a negative way. It’s more like she sees herself as any sibling does. The parents are fair game and if you want something from them you jockey for position to get it. She does a very good job.

So although I wasn’t surprised by her question, it was the reasoning behind it that made me think. “Autism” is a word that we use at home. Our boys are of an age where they notice that they are different. So we have been very open with our kids — how could we not? Lily, however, sees this as her brothers and little sister having something she doesn’t. “Sam has autism?”

“Yup.”

“Oscar has autism?”

“Yup.”

“Zoe has autism?”

“Yup.”

“So they all have autism and I don’t.”

“Yup.”

“Well that’s not fair! What do I get?”

“A big hug and kiss from me?”

“Maaama!”

We have always talked to the kids about how people are different, and that some people by their behavior or words or lack of words might appear more different than others. But no matter what the differences, everyone was deserving of dignity and respect. Everyone. We didn’t use the word “autism” until we saw it on the television show Arthur. You know, the show where the lead character, Arthur, is an aardvark? It wasn’t as if I was ashamed of the word. It just needed to be put in a way they could all understand. Sigh . . . sometimes, I guess it doesn’t take a village . . . sometimes it takes an aardvark.

All of my kids require some sort of accommodations. All of them, and yes, some more than others. (We are a great example of what a spectrum is.) That’s just the way it is. I don’t weigh one against the other, assessing the degree of need. They are my children and they are equal.

So, do dogs have autism? I couldn’t tell you. What I said to Lily was, “Would it matter if they did?” She thought about it for half a second.

“I guess not.” The conversation was left at that. She was already off and running on to the next thing that caught her interest. Because autism doesn’t really matter to her. She looks at our family and sees just that — her family. Where she knows she is loved and cherished for being who she is. A sister and a daughter who sometimes thinks she is queen. She gets that last part from me.

~Kathleen Leopold

More stories from our partners