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.

 

 

12 Comments
  1. Being the mother of two autistic teenagers, I can see where it would most likely irritate you when people say their PET is autistic, but like you stated, you’re NOT a veterinarian, so simply put, the statement you make that dogs are NOT autistic is only your opinion. I agree that dogs who are picky eaters, don’t like to be touched, etc… are just that…..dogs that don’t like certain things. However, when a dog exhibits numerous signs of autism, I have to think that the possiblity is real that dogs CAN have autism. I have a 14 month old lab mix. In the first 10 months, I simply thought this dog was defiant and stubborn. We paid $600 for professional training and received minimal improvement. We took him to the vet and at 10 months of age, we made the decision to try Prozac. It has helped some, but he STILL exhibits nurmerous autistic traits such as, inability to show emotions of love, fear, etc…, he doesn’t play, if I attempt to play with him by tossing a ball, he watches it fall to the ground and picks up a rock instead. If I attempt to play with him in the house with a toy, he looks at the toy and plops on the floor and ignores it. He shows a lack of interest not only in playing but also in food even when I know he is hungry. He has dysfunctional interaction with the other pets in our household as well as us (his owners). The first year was very frustrating and there were times when I wondered how much more I could put up with from this dog. Over time I have realized that he HAS a mental issue and all I can do is show him that I love him, even though the love is not returned. I have no way of knowing if he even knows that I love him due to his lack of emotion. So with that being said, I acknowledge that you have autistic children and that it’s a huge challenge, but don’t belittle people who say their dog is “autistic”…. you don’t have to believe it, and although it’s a huge challenge, I’m sure its a smaller challenge than having a autistic child. I’m not taking that away from you, I just wanted to voice MY opinion on the “autism in dogs” subject.

  2. Scientific study must be conducted to prove or disprove your hypothesis. While any person with adequate social skills would never compare the loss of a spouse to a dog, the unconditional love people have for their children extends to their dogs as well. So it only seems natural to make a comparison between autism in humans and dogs if the signs exist. I think dog owners want to provide the best treatment for their dogs. To do otherwise would be inhumane.

    • Julia…Thanks for your comment. I can only assume you are a dog lover. I’m a dog lover too and I do appreciate that people want to understand what makes their dog tick. I also appreciate that people want to take the best care possible of their animals. I know I do. Our dog is a beloved member of our family and a huge blessing to my autistic children. That being said while I try to have a sense of humor about the comparisons people make between their dogs and all sorts of neurological conditions, I still think it is insensitive to label dogs autistic. If you found a veterinarian that was willing to make such a diagnosis I would love to know what criteria they use. Science is a long way from having a biologic, genetic, or environmental protocol for diagnosing autism in humans so I think we’re probably a long way away from diagnosing animals. Only behavioral observations can be used at the moment to make a diagnosis so while that makes it easier to compare animals to children the fact remains they are not. They just don’t have the same brains. I’m not suggesting with this post that animals don’t have struggles but rather that when we personify those, we do so at the risk of adding to the alienation families impacted by autism already feel.

  3. I read your original essay, and now you’ve made me furious. It reeks of high-minded pomposity. You are not a veterinarian, and subsequently are not qualified to command others on how to label animals’ behavior.

    To claim that an animal’s “annoying” behavior cannot be the product of a mental or physical defect is grossly insensitive and closed-minded. You trivialize the struggles of those who love animals and realize that they too are sentient beings. Don’t forget that at the end of the day humans are animals.

    Obtain solid scientific research to back up your soapbox rantings next time.

    • Brooke, I haven’t “commanded” anyone. However, I have tried to discourage the labeling of dogs as autistic. You are free to disagree of course and I’ve included your comment just to demonstrate I’m not above being criticized. I’m also not insensitive as you claim, to the struggles folks have with the animals they love. I have a dog that is very challenging so I do know what it’s like for folks. I also have two autistic children so it’s safe to say I know what that’s like for families as well. You are right I’m not a veterinarian. If you’d like to talk to an expert yourself I’d suggest my friend Temple Grandin who is one of the world’s leading animal science experts as well as an expert on autism. You can email her questions you have and she will respond. It might take some time but she does her best. https://www.templegrandin.com/ Temple has been a great help to me with my dog and my children.

  4. https://www.autismspeaks.org/what-autism/diagnosis/dsm-5-diagnostic-criteria
    This is the DSM V criteria for Autism. It seems everyone is getting on the Autism bandwagon. As a dog lover and a mother with a child with Aspergers, it’s ridiculous–dogs don’t have Autism.

  5. I find this blog well written and as a mom to a young adult with autism,I appreciate what Karen has to say.
    When I read both her blog post on this topic (after googling “autistic dogs because it was brought up in a conversation and I was baffled by the thought)I felt they showed great RESPECT for autistic people as well as a sensitivity to dog lovers.
    Brooke–check out Temple Grandin as well as DSM V criteria, its well worth it !!

  6. I am resubmitting this because I have the wrong blog link. Sorry.

    Anyway — Speaking only for myself, it demeans my son’ struggle when autism is applied to dogs. I love dogs, but, as you point out, they cannot be diagnosed as autistic. There are many reasons but the easiest to prove it’s that because they can never meet the criteria of lack of speech before age two.

    No. Barking, whining and growling do not constitute speech. My invitation to those who think I’m off base? Come on over to my house for a week and let’s compare notes.

  7. it’s interesting to me that you state that the criteria for diagnosing autism in humans cannot be applied to animals simply because they cannot speak. the criteria for assessing humans as autistic doesn’t require that they be able to speak, and yet this seems to be the central focus of your argument. as you pointed out, what it does require is “behaviors [that can be] observed, categorized, and tested to see whether or not a person meets the criteria,” or a lack of social communication. and just as we have certain criteria for what constitutes acceptable non-verbal, or social, communication in humans, the same is true in dogs.

    dogs and their communication have been studied for years, giving us an abundant knowledge of what is considered acceptable and unacceptable social communication in canines. just as a child who is not yet verbal should display certain key social communication skills, ie making eye contact, facial expressions, etc., dogs should be able to display certain key communicators as well. if a dog doesn’t display these, there is a legitimate cause for concern. and when this is coupled with other behaviors that are debilitating to the dog, it becomes necessary to categorize it.

    i doubt that anyone who has a dog who displays behavior that could be considered to fall somewhere on the autism scale is trying to demean or belittle your trials or your sons’ trials. what they are trying to do is give others a place from which to begin to understand the issues that they have to deal with. when people ask me about our dog ruby and the issues she has, i don’t hesitate to tell them that she falls somewhere on the autism scale. why do i feel comfortable doing that? because my wonderfully empathetic vet, who has a son with autism, diagnosed her.

    • Myra your vet and mine would disagree but I appreciate your comment and rationale. I think you’ve made the most reasonable argument anyone has ever made on the subject. Last fall Temple Grandin was asked at an event I attended if dogs could be autistic and as an animal behaviorist and autistic herself she was adamant they couldn’t be. I’m not comfortable labeling a dog this way but that’s my bias at this point. I do appreciate your comments though and the gracious manner they were portrayed. That is not always the case so it’s refreshing.

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