A spe­cial bond

Jeremy Hob­son dis­cov­ers the po­ten­tial value of chicken keep­ing for chil­dren af­fected by autism and Asperger’s Syn­drome

Your Chickens - - Feature | Autism -

It is hard for any­one to re­sist the lure of new­ly­hatched, vul­ner­a­ble fluffy chicks. In­deed, so at­trac­tive are they that one’s im­me­di­ate nat­u­ral in­stinct is to pick them up and give them a cud­dle.

Most adults know to be gen­tle when do­ing so, but, de­spite a cer­tain in­her­ent aware­ness, chil­dren need to be shown how to han­dle young birds with­out squeez­ing or dam­ag­ing them. Some get it first time, while oth­ers need a bit longer.

Young peo­ple who some­times fail to grasp (no pun in­tended) the need to treat young chicks with cau­tion are those with with autism and Asperger’s Syn­drome. Al­most al­ways bright and in­tel­li­gent (some have an IQ of 130 plus), these young peo­ple of­ten have a fan­tas­tic at­trac­tion to chick­ens once they have learned how to in­ter­act with them.

Chil­dren and chick­ens go to­gether. Nowhere is this truer than when talk­ing of chil­dren af­fected by autism and, at the higher end of the spec­trum, Asperger’s. Be­ing in­volved in chicken-keep­ing can pos­i­tively im­pact on com­mu­ni­ca­tion, so­cial and in­de­pen­dent skills and, if a child has sen­sory issues, it will al­most cer­tainly help them to learn to cope with sud­den sounds and un­ex­pected move­ments. Im­por­tantly, the pre­dictabil­ity of chick­ens un­doubt­edly helps to es­tab­lish the bond with them.

VERY BEN­E­FI­CIAL

Kim Stod­dart is a writer on ru­ral issues, an ex­pe­ri­enced chicken keeper and the mother of eight-year-old Arthur, who is on the autis­tic spec­trum. She also runs a so­cial en­ter­prise at her small­hold­ing in West Wales and has cre­ated a fledg­ling care farm to help sup­port peo­ple with autism.

“Chick­ens can be very ben­e­fi­cial, pro­vid­ing pos­i­tive sen­sory in­ter­est as they wan­der around a gar­den or field, lay eggs, eat their food, drink wa­ter and flap their wings,” said Kim. “They are very ed­u­ca­tional and can be

used to teach about ev­ery­thing from sound, colour and tex­ture, as well as help­ing to aid com­mu­ni­ca­tion and pro­vide fo­cus. But it’s im­por­tant to bear in mind that every child and person with autism is dif­fer­ent and can be over or un­der stim­u­lated in a myr­iad of ways.

“For some, loud and sud­den noises (or move­ments) are more chal­leng­ing, while oth­ers might be over stim­u­lated by cer­tain colours or tex­tures; for ex­am­ple, the stroking of a bird’s feath­ers may be dif­fi­cult. So, with this in mind, it’s es­sen­tial if work­ing with an in­di­vid­ual to con­sider what would be best for them. Some might sim­ply pre­fer work­ing with other an­i­mals at first or might en­joy the col­lect­ing of eggs but only when the chick­ens aren’t around.

“Arthur likes to touch the bird’s feath­ers as they are be­ing held. He also en­joys feed­ing them, and finds it most amus­ing when they chase each other or jump up in the air to catch a fly, as they are prone to do. He copes really well with most loud noises, so he is happy around our cock­erel and the nois­ier of the chick­ens. For him, un­der­stand­ing why a noise is tak­ing place means he can ac­cept it. For oth­ers, how­ever, loud sounds can be ex­tremely up­set­ting, so this is some­thing to bear in mind if con­sid­er­ing get­ting a cock­erel as well.”

VI­TAL IN­TER­AC­TION

It is a good idea to pick cock­erel that is not ag­gres­sive or flighty. In­stead, pick the heav­ier, more se­date types that are happy to bum­ble about the gar­den and very quickly be­come tame – of­ten tame enough to eat from one’s hand. It is, after all, in­ter­ac­tion be­tween chicken and child that’s wanted if that

Any which way, be­ing around poul­try can be ex­tremely ben­e­fi­cial

all-im­por­tant bond is to be achieved.

This in­ter­ac­tion is vi­tal. Whilst ar­tic­u­late, bright and in­tel­li­gent, those with autism might not nec­es­sar­ily be all that prac­ti­cal, and the daily rou­tine of hands-on chick­en­keep­ing can teach them a great deal, as well as prov­ing a dis­trac­tion for those who are prone to anx­i­ety and de­pres­sion.

It’s a proven truth that chick­ens can act as the per­fect medium when de­vel­op­ing a child’s so­cial skills. Watch­ing their birds on a daily ba­sis, and learn­ing to un­der­stand their rel­a­tively sim­ple needs, can take those with the con­di­tion out of them­selves and teach them to think of oth­ers.

At the higher func­tion­ing end of the spec­trum (in­clud­ing Asperger’s), many are known to take an in­tense in­ter­est in spe­cialised top­ics. It’s pos­si­ble that this con­cen­tra­tion might even make them bet­ter poul­try han­dlers than the rest of us; they could, for ex­am­ple, read a book on the sub­ject and then com­pletely re­tain the knowl­edge and act on it. In ad­di­tion, they are likely to be able to bet­ter un­der­stand the of­ten com­pli­cated ge­net­ics in­volved with breed­ing birds to stan­dard – a prac­tice which leaves many of we lesser mor­tals to­tally be­wil­dered!

FUL­FILL­ING AND STIM­U­LAT­ING

One can find videos on­line of chil­dren in­ter­act­ing with chick­ens, of­ten in quite sur­pris­ing ways. One, for in­stance, de­picts a very com­pe­tent large fowl hen com­plet­ing a home-made ob­sta­cle course of hoops, small jumps and weav­ing in and out of gar­den canes in slalom-fash­ion en­cour­aged only by its young fe­male han­dler and the pos­si­bil­ity of a few tit-bits. It just goes to prove that, not only can chick­ens be taught tricks, but do­ing so can be a ful­fill­ing and stim­u­lat­ing for its owner.

Kim said: “Any which way, be­ing around poul­try can be ex­tremely ben­e­fi­cial and can help over time with the de­vel­op­ment of cop­ing mech­a­nisms around a range of sen­sory issues. Be­ing in the great out­doors is in it­self nur­tur­ing and helps to pro­vide what is called emo­tional reg­u­la­tion for peo­ple on the autis­tic spec­trum. I be­lieve it does so for the rest of us as well, help­ing to wash away the stress of the day and cre­at­ing a calm, con­tented state.”

And so say all of us!

ABOVE: Chil­dren and chick­ens go to­gether! RIGHT: Kim Stod­dart’s son Arthur likes col­lect­ing eggs

Kim with Arthur in the poly­tun­nel

Arthur, 8, is on the autis­tic spec­trum

Cock­erels can some­times be chal­leng­ing for chil­dren on the autis­tic spec­trum

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