What’s the fuss about animals and autism?

It’s been more than a month since I wrote my response to the terribly biased and poorly researched article in Spectrum on autistic researchers. Since then, I’ve not stopped ‘going on’ about the subject because I feel a gross injustice has been done – in fact it is a multidimensional injustice. But I’ve been told to stop, even by autistic people, because I am passionate about a topic that most people do not understand and/or abuse, a subject that has been shamelessly mistreated and exploited, resulting in a great deal of hurt and damage to autistic people, as well as to autistic researchers who are actually researching this connection. Yes, I am talking about Animals and Autism. I already know one autistic researcher who has been deeply wounded by this article. The root of the problem is ignorance. This topic has been hijacked by shameless ignoramus, and the majority of those who are offended in the process are reacting also out of ignorance, and the proverbial baby gets thrown out with the dirty bath water. It is an important ‘baby’, and one that I firmly believe will shed even more stunning brilliance to autism research, if only it were more understood and pursued further.

I am no expert myself. I wish I could be. If I had time and finances on my side, I would embark on another PhD in this area. Sadly (for me), all I do have now is this little tiny glimpse. Nevertheless, I will not stop saying what I am compelled to say. I will continue to encourage young autistic researchers who are interested to pursue their dreams in this field. If you have seen something so amazingly exquisite, something that has changed you from the very core, then you will not cease to speak about it. Someday, the world may see what we see. For now, it is a lonely thing to be a minority within a minority. The passage below is taken from my PhD dissertation, and can be found in the chapter Space of Mind.

Strange conversations

One may question the importance placed on sensory atypicality where it comes to the autistic experiential dimension. After all, sensory divergence is not the domain of autism alone. However, probing deeper into the autism-specific studies and personal anecdotes about aspects of sensory idiosyncrasy when combined with autistic cognition and essential differences in interactive and communicative proclivities, there seems to appear consistently a crucial, organic contrast between the way the non-autistic person with hypersensitivity processes the world and the manner in which the autist interacts. The social world at large emphasises the centrality of human-to-human interactivity: normative social behaviour remains the central point, and the enjoyment of social activation is an overarching goal. By contrast, autistic sensory-focus appears to concentrate around encompassing connections with and between the animate and inanimate: that is, autists demonstrate a predilection for interconnectivity that is neither confined to nor defined by the human realm.

“My first comfortable means of communicating came from that.  It had to do with the way I interacted with and arranged objects.  It could be anything from tree bark to a book.

Objects have always been alive to me, and my interaction with them has always felt like communication. Weirdly enough, this has inspired anger in other people.  And an intense, condescending need to try to teach me that the whole world is dead and I’m an idiot for thinking I can communicate with things.  Someone once said to me, “The way water responds to you is the laws of physics, not communication.”  I ignored him, but I wanted to ask how exactly those two things were different. I seem to come with an entirely different set of assumptions about the world than most people do.” – Amanda Baggs [54]

The human to animal dynamic is another common feature in autism. Temple Grandin has documented her connection with animals in great detail and attributes this affinity to her hypersenses and the ability to identify, empathise with and form associations while operating chiefly in the senses.[55] Dawn Prince’s bond with the primates that she has studied is threaded cogently through her compelling narrative, “Songs of the Gorilla Nation.”[56] In a powerful interview, Dawn Prince-Hughes described the moment when she first encountered the gorillas with whom she would eventually spend many years as an anthropologist:

“But then, when I turned the corner and saw the gorillas, I just sat there. I just sat there that day. And I sat there for hours, and I just watched them. And there was just this epiphany, this flood of identification where I thought, these are people, and more importantly, these are people that understand me, and they’re people that I am going to understand for the first time in my life. I’m guessing that’s what most people feel like with each other – most human beings feel like with each other. But I hadn’t felt that before. It was just amazing. They didn’t look me right in the eye for about an hour and a half. They very tenderly waited and kind of felt where I was, eventually glancing over at me really quickly and then putting their heads down again. It was just a very slow-moving, tender social interaction. It’s so much different.” – Dawn Prince-Hughes [57]

Like Temple Grandin and many other autists who have formed intimate connections with animals, Prince-Hughes had this to say about the role of the gorillas in her personal development as a human:

“Yes, the gorillas gave me my humanity.” – Dawn Prince-Hughes [58]

My own experience with animals is similar. As a child, I always felt more emotionally and sensorially connected with animals than with humans. The best memories of my childhood was the part filled with vivid and dynamic interaction with the elements and with the animals that inhabited my home. I collected tadpoles in bottles and glass tanks, avidly watching them grow and transform, documenting the process. There were lizard eggs that I found in the garden and tried to incubate under my bed, sometimes successfully; ducks and chicken in the backyard; and a very special bunny called Floppy who lived in a box in my bedroom. My favourite animal is the dog, though I never really had my own special canine companion until recently, when Lucy entered my life.

LISTENING TO LUCY – an intimate narrative

terrestrial being
warm vanilla
angel’s breath
rise and fall
majestic breast
without estate
with me
too brief
a blessing
(Ode to Lucy – Dawn-joy Leong 2014)

My canine child is unwell. I am straining my senses to listen. I am listening to Lucy.

She does not speak the human libretto. Hers is a language of the senses and body. Similar to my intrinsic autistic sense, yet very different, hers is a parallel embodiment to my parallelism. An ironic parody of the autistic-neurotypical interplay: Lucy seems to grasp my nuances far more readily, more eagerly, and with more determined application, than I do hers. As my assistance dog, she is able to sense when I am sensorially overwhelmed and approaching sensory-anxiety overload, and will communicate that information to me, so that I may take practical steps to mitigate the situation and prevent myself from a meltdown. In this respect, Lucy appears to be much more aware of my world than I am of hers, displaying a deeper ability to empathise with me than I am capable of for her. Is this because she works far harder to fathom my world, than I do hers, utilising her superior canine senses to soak up the nuances surrounding my existence whereas I am mired inside my own Business of Otherness? Perhaps the answer lies in an interwoven combination of both, or far deeper reason than I can grasp in my limited human mentality.

I am listening to Lucy.

Her canine realm is hard for me to understand, because she does not speak the worded semantic language of humans. Yet, empathy is an endeavour after all – a labour of will, commitment and, in some cases, an undertaking of deep resonance, a kind of intense connectivity that humans often refer to as “love.”

“Tell me where it hurts, my love!” I utter in hapless human babble, fully aware that she is unable to reply to my enunciation of gibberish. How much does she understand of my wordsome expressions? Scientists say that dogs do grasp a limited vocabulary of human words.[60] Yet, I wonder, how exactly do they process it all? Ah, but it is not my concern today to muse overly long, hovering ignorantly around the science. Right this very moment, all I want is to soothe my canine child.

Pressed against her length – human skin against warm canine be-furred body – I inhale her sensory messages through tactile, olfactory, visual, aural senses with as much profundity as I am able to muster. I watch her with growing concern, she is quivering with tiny imperceptible spasms of muscular contractions, drifting in and out of slumber.

I am listening to Lucy.

Her breathing – rhythmic flow, the sound of air being inhaled and exhaled – seems different. My ears tingle with disquiet, my heart beats harder, and a small nebulous cloud of distress forms just beneath my diaphragm. As if on cue, Lucy’s ribcage moves up and down with every breath, its gestures seem laboured. She stirs, shifts her body and places her head upon my lap. I stroke her, gently massaging soft silken velvet ears. A small groan emerges. After awhile, she moves again, her head now on the bed and pressing against me, an indication that she has had enough.

My senses so inferior, gyrating fears, I know something is not right, yet, I cannot discern clearly enough through the thick smog. I know all is not well, but I am unable to translate into wordedness what little my senses tell. Nobody can help us – who is able to understand our tapestry? We are two, alone together inside our shared cocoon, speaking unspeaking, a strange foxtrot.

Parallel embodiments – in propria persona

Notes for the Worded Other:

This is not a fairy story about ‘anthropomorphic love’. Lucy is a Greyhound. A Greyhound is a dog. To me, Lucy Greyhound is a very special kind of dog, but a dog, nevertheless. I have no fanciful emotional urges to create a humanised caricature out of Lucy. She is not a four-legged human with a fur coat, she is a dog that lives within the confines of a human ecology, dependent solely on human care, consideration and conference for her survival and wellbeing. In other words, she is living in my world, a vulnerable sentient creature of Otherness, whose existence is solely reliant on my providence as her human companion. Hence, where she is unable to make qualified decisions, it falls upon my shoulders to do so. I feed her the best diet that I can afford, taking into account her individual needs. I see it as my duty to make sure she gets enough exercise, and provide proper medical care. When it is cold, I put warm clothing over her, and when it is hot, I sponge her and keep her in a cool, dry place – simply because the Greyhound has very little body fat, and she can suffer easily from extremes of temperature. Of course, apart from basic health and safety requirements, I also make sure that her clothing and accessories meet my own personal standards for beauty. The aesthetic choices are purely my own, to satisfy my need and not hers. I am very clear about the difference between the two. I call her my “baby girl” and my “child,” but that is because the human worded language is too limited, and lacks the depth and expanse to describe the interspecies relational bond that I share with Lucy. In my mindscape, she is a dog, and she also has her own unique Beingness.

Lucy is a parallel embodiment: in propria persona. I would never wish for her to take on a human personification. That latter concept, though widely popular, especially among mainstream social-focused society, is actually most frightening to me. My connection with Lucy is all the more treasured because of our inter-species interdependence, and I am very certain she is able to discern at the same time that I am not a dog. I do not consider myself, by virtue of being human – nor because I am her caregiver in human domains where she is unable to effectively contribute independently – in any way ‘superior’ to her embodiment. Lucy contributes to my wellbeing in ways no human person, not even myself, is able to do. She has a respectable position of worth all of her own: and this is not because she has been ‘trained’ by humans to be my assistance animal, but merely because of our symbiotic relationship. The richness of our life together lies in the crucial recognition of parallel embodiment, as well as our shared appreciation of the material and elemental world around us – our endeavour of empathy. My perception of our symbiosis may be summed up in the following passage taken from a post in my sensory blog:

“It can be extremely frightening, not understanding the language of the Other. A parallel embodied creature, yet her worth cannot be calculated in human terms. The universe knows, and its measurement remains a mystery. Benighted human beast, contemptible nescient caretaker of such magnificence… I am ashamed… yet… she never gives up on trying to communicate with me.

Lucy has taught me more about my own autism than any words gathered in careful order on pages ever could. She reveals the Self-Other conundrum in ways so tenderly beautiful, no ponderous philosophical text would measure up to.” – Dawn-joy Leong. [61]

My narrative finds sympathetic resonance in Dawn Prince-Hughes’ statement about her bond with the gorillas she studies:

“You know it’s funny because I’ve been accused of anthropomorphising gorillas, but I think in fact what I have done is I have gorilla-morphised human beings. I didn’t see all these great traits in human beings before I saw them in gorillas. When I look at gorillas, I see people. When I look at human beings, it’s a little daunting.” – Dawn Prince-Hughes [62]


[54]Baggs, “Plants.”

[55]Temple Grandin,  “Thinking the Way Animals Do: Unique insights from a person with a singular understanding,” Western Horseman(1997): 140-147.

[56]Dawn Prince-Hughes, “Songs of the Gorilla Nation: My Journey through Autism,” (University of Michigan, Three Rivers Press, 2005)

[57]Dawn Prince-Hughes, “Through the Looking Glass,” February 27, 2015, accessed 6 March 2016, http://www.npr.org/2015/02/27/389489102/through-the-looking-glass.

[58]Dawn Prince-Hughes, interview, “Gorillas taught me to be human,” Outlook, Aug 27, 2013, BBC World Service, accessed 6 March 2016, http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p01fdtk4

[59]Dawn-joy Leong, “Ode to Lucy,” Bunnyhopscotch, blog post, April 19, 2014, accessed April 11, 2016, https://bunnyhopscotch.wordpress.com/2014/04/19/ode-to-lucy/

[60]Julie Hecht, “Do dogs understand our words?”The Bark,December 21, 2012, accessed November 15, 2015, http://thebark.com/content/do-dogs-understand-our-words

[61]Dawn-joy Leong, “Wordless Enunciation,” Bunnyhopscotch, blog post, April 19, 2014, accessed April 11, 2016, https://bunnyhopscotch.wordpress.com/2016/02/13/wordless-enunciation/.

[62]Dawn Prince-Hughes, interview, “Gorillas taught me to be human,” Outlook, Aug 27, 2013, BBC World Service, accessed 6 March 2016, http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p01fdtk4

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