Last week the Pioneer Woman unknowingly prompted a debate on Facebook amongst my family when my Dad posted a comment raving about her blog. My cousin who is an accomplished food blogger had to reply. She is not a fan of Ms. Drummond. As the Food Editor for BlogHer she has more than one opinion about what constitutes good blogging.
Our public disagreement cracked me up. Later, when I found a dime at the grocery store under a display of the Pioneer Woman’s cookbook I wondered what this was all about for me. I couldn’t see any connection until I looked at my cousin’s criticism of Ms. Drummond. This brought to mind the most widely read blog post I’ve ever written, “Autistic Dogs: Just Say No” which has had thousands of hits.
Granted thousands aren’t millions but as a blogger this isn’t what I want to be known for. While my life has been profoundly impacted by autism it isn’t my focus. My platform is change from the personal perspective. That being said, I am still guilty with that piece of my cousin’s criticism of the Pioneer Woman. I was self-indulgent. I was angry when I wrote it and missed the opportunity to offer my reader’s any alternatives. In many respects, I did the same thing the media I criticize does. I threw a subject out and didn’t offer a solution. So, in the spirit of good blogging and because Autism Awareness Month has rolled around here goes.
First, the question can dogs be autistic? No. How am I qualified to answer this? I’m a dog owner and mother of two autistic teenagers. I’m not a veterinarian but have one and he was emphatic when my dog Buddy was labeled autistic by his breeder that he couldn’t be. There are no diagnostic criteria for assessing dogs with a complex neurological disorder. Animals can have problems but they aren’t categorized and can’t be assessed for the most obvious reason—they don’t speak. Parrots mimic and animals communicate but the ability to use language as humans know it is beyond an animal.
This is a critical difference when it comes to autism because social communication is one of the three areas observed to make a diagnosis. The other two are social relationships and imaginative thought. In the broadest sense this is how a diagnosis is made. Behaviors are observed, categorized, and tested to see whether or not a person meets the criteria. However, the behavior has to be striking and severe enough to come to clinical attention. It has to be so debilitating that categorizing becomes important. Labels are a heavy burden to carry and qualified professionals know we shouldn’t attach them haphazardly to people or animals.
It happens more than ever because categories help us sort information and it’s the Information Age. Man’s desire to know and understand everything is both a blessing and a curse. Autism checklists can prompt a family to get professional help if they suspect a problem. The flipside—everyone becomes an expert about things they really know nothing about. I’m not concerned this is politically incorrect. My experience is that it’s hurtful.
Would someone console a grieving widow whose husband had died in a car accident by saying my dog was run over by a car and it was awful? Never. If a couple’s teenage son ran away would we say I had a runaway dog once? No. Anyone with an average amount of empathy would realize these were insensitive statements. If I told someone my kids were autistic and their response was that they have an autistic dog I would quickly realize they know nothing about my life. Hopefully, I would also give them the benefit of the doubt and assume they don’t mean to be insensitive. They simply don’t know what else to say.
I think this is what’s happening when it comes to dogs. Autism is on the rise in children and when anything is reaching epidemic proportions we start looking at where else we might see the problem. Folks are curious and if you have a challenging dog it’s not unreasonable to ask the question. Maybe not at a dinner party but that’s what Google searches are for which brings us full circle.
Dogs can’t be autistic. It is, however, safe to say that some dog behaviors mimic troublesome autistic behavior. It’s possible to describe that and be sensitive to autistic families at the same time. If your dog prefers to be alone say he’s not much of pack animal. If he has strong food aversions say he’s a picky eater. If he’s always on alert say he’s hyper-vigilant. If he doesn’t like his routine changed say he’s change averse. If he barks at seemingly nothing say he’s got a nervous bark. If he’s obsessed with something describe him as tenacious. If he’s all of the above like my dog, call him high-maintenance. If absolutely none of these work and you still feel compelled then say he’s got some autistic-like traits.
You might then also want to consider that you do too, because labeling everything is classic autistic behavior. The good news—everyone has shadow autistic traits and for the person that doesn’t fall within the diagnostic spectrum this can be a good thing. In the normal person those traits and behaviors have adaptive value. This is a nice way of saying they can be used those to their advantage. The same holds true for autistics. The difference is it’s HARDER THAN YOU CAN EVER IMAGINE to overcome and those challenges. For that reason alone we shouldn’t throw them to the dogs. It’s inhumane.