A few years ago my elder daughter asked if she could have a couple of guinea pigs for her 11th birthday. We agreed on the basis that she would take care of them – we thought it would be good for her to take on this responsibility. So off we trotted to the local pet shop where she chose two cute male guineapigs – one with brown and spiky hair that the children named Coco and another that was short-haired and had spalshes of brown and white that they named George.
I have to admit to not being very keen on guinea pigs, I’m more of a cat woman myself, yet very soon they worked their magic on all of us. They used to squeak to us whenever we were around and it was also great fun watching them interact and munch their way through loads of dandelion leaves, lettuce and cabbage leaves. Even more exciting for our children was their early escape attempts around the garden which freaked me out a bit knowing they would be easy food for the foxes and the occasional bird of prey we get in the garden.
Therapy for our son
What we didn’t expect though was our son’s devotion to them. He loved looking after them, touching them and talking to them. He was brilliant. Eventually, when we started to better understand our son’s autistic disorder, we could see how these animals were also helping him recover from meltdowns when his ability to connect with the world was impaired. I usually waited towards the end of a meltdown when his communication had recovered sufficiently for me to work out whether he wanted a guineapig on his lap. If he allowed me to place one of the pigs on his lap he would then stroke and talk to it which soothed him further. There were also times when he would communicate through one of the guineapigs rather than have face-to-face communication with me and his dad.
It was such an unexpected thing, a wonderful thing, to see how a little animal could help my son so much. I have always appreciated and enjoyed the natural world but I didn’t realise how animals could potentially be a form of therapy for autistic people.