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Raising Our North Stars: Kumari's Puppies at One Year Old

'North Star Kumari's Pups''North Star Kumari's Pups'

It has been a difficult time for our nation since North Star Kumari’s puppies were born last October. This past year has been a long one, set against a disquieting backdrop of a lingering recession, raging floods, furious fires, and, perhaps, soon to come the locusts…we’re living in the Age of Anxiety, my friends, and only someone over half a century old can truly remember the difference between this age and one more tranquil.

I think we would have taken even these biblical events in stride, helping each other out the way we always do when faced with natural catastrophe anywhere across our shared land, but it was the horrific shooting in Newtown and the shocking loss of such precious life that put us all on edge this time last year, after the leaves had begun to turn and before Kumari’s pups were even standing steady on their feet. My memories of the holidays are tinged with sadness and even the appreciation of new life beneath my roof was bittersweet.

We are deeply ensconced as an entire nation in this anxious age and stitched together by virtue of our shared experiences. In the past decade rather than ending old and grievous wars we’ve been skirting new ones, and instead of taking steps to end school shootings we are losing legislative ground. We have taken swan dives off fiscal cliffs together, and as I type our government is shut down tight, leaving me to sit in front of my computer with quiet hands and roiling thoughts. Who can we blame for the state of this country we share?

We have all lived through this past year under the same sky, but with our own unique lives and filters of information, which we process so differently one to the other. Still, most of us are touched in a similar ways by the experience of watching identical images on the six o’clock news, and we are strongly connected by living within the same country at this same anxious time in history.

And I can tell you with certainty that this is a very tough time to be an optimist who still waits for the Age of Aquarius; after a while you have to wonder if this state of nirvana envisioned so eloquently by so many of us in the 60s will ever actually arrive. We were pretty sure it was on its way back then, with the wind of the woman’s movement at our back and accelerating. Martin Luther King had just given his hallmark speech, but then lost his life before it was even done reverberating across the nation. And then came other deaths of charismatic leaders, which shocked us all out of our complacency. Assassinations felt like singular events back then, times you would gather around the television as though it were the campfire meant to warm the chill with technicolor.

Children with autism are among the canaries in the coalmine of our anxious age. Chaotic, sensory unfriendly or hostile social environments are toxic to most children on the autism spectrum, and even in friendly and appropriate environments, care needs to be taken to understand and mitigate the child’s underlying and definable sensory, social and emotional challenges. Communication needs to be bridged wherever they may go, and I believe that this is a basic right of a child on the autism spectrum; this should be considered a civil right granted to every child with autism upon diagnosis in our country. Peaceful and intelligently created environments should be designed for them so that they can be properly educated, being careful to move the child forward socially and emotionally as well as educationally.

This would be good news for anyone, not just parents of those with autism, as anything good for our children on the spectrum is good for our typically developing children, and our entire nation, as well. Integrating children with autism is important for all of us to do to be able to have all our children understand their differences in context to their relationship to our shared society. Bullying in the schools is an end result of adults not clear that schools are in part for teaching children how to be citizens of our country. When children with differences are carefully integrated into classrooms the effects of the social climate of the class can be transformed to a level of respect that creates a tolerant community throughout all the grades, and beyond. This helps schools stay bully free and keeps us from paying in the form of violent crime that sometimes occurs when children grow up with unmet needs or unchecked bullying.

We’ve seen the bitter reality of what happens to children who have been bullied, neglected or abused; twisted attempts at revenge are behind many crimes and school shootings, but saying that better mental health services for those in crisis is the answer to preventing school shooting is naive. Emergency mental health delivered to adults who have fallen through the cracks since childhood is as meaningless as putting a band aid on a gaping wound (this typically delivered in the form of medications, which the adult patient can choose to take, or not take.)

Some believe that armed guards and metal detectors at schools should be our first line of defense from the horror of future school shootings, others believe increased background checks or bans on assault weapons is the way to go. Still others say vague things that seem to pin the blame on people with mental health issues for the uptick in school shootings or mass murders, much the way a blindfolded and spun toddler would try to pin the tail on the donkey. This is ominous, as blaming a group of people for something sensationally horrific can create fear, which is the precursor to prejudice that is already rampant in our society against the mentally ill.

I personally believe another avenue should be added to our roadmap toward a solution, and this is to pay better attention to all children’s social/emotional growth in our schools and to increase funding for integrated early intervention programs, both because it’s good for the children who face challenges as well the society that they will ultimately come to live within; we are all connected, and in important ways not yet fully discerned. It is clear that we cannot afford to allow our children to grow up disconnected or alienated from others in their communities, and nor is it wise to let someone be bullied for years at a time. This is not only exceeding painful for the recipient, but also quite damaging to the psychology of the developing child as well as other children who merely witness the abuse. We have a stake in each and every child’s future born to us, and so programs should be created and delivered to children who face a large variety of social, emotional and educational challenges, which includes our youngest identified bullies or children suffering from manmade issues on the home front such as divorce or grief from serious illness or death of a loved one. Keeping all our children integrated, connected and safe from physical as well as psychological harm as they move into their communities as newly minted adults will pay off a short generation from now; this is a long range plan to help keep us safe now and far into our entwined futures.

Increasing identification of children who face social, emotional or educational deficits at as young an age as possible should be combined with appropriate early intervention, employing evidenced based scientific practices and a good amount of TLC. This will not be a panacea, of course, and it’s certainly no cure for autism, but it is a way to help the child realize his potential, as well as increase tolerance and understanding of the child’s challenge by those he comes into contact with; the assistance pup by the child’s side has many roles to take with their partner, but by far the most important is to be a silent witness to the love that stands beside this child. This is the most powerful antidote for bullying that I have ever found in my quarter century search for a weapon against bullying in its many forms, for seeing the child with autism through a pup’s eyes that is trained to help is quite powerful. School bullying takes forms which are most obvious and easy to deal with in elementary children, with more subterfuge in the mix in middle school and a level of entrenched and brutal sophistication in high school. I once heard of a boy with Aspergers whose bullying in high school came to him in the form of frequent stage whispers by classmates that there was to be a test that day, just to watch him panic at the thought.

And I doubt these bullies would have tipped over a classmate in a wheelchair, or tripped a blind student, but they would gang up to tease a child with autism who struggles each and every day to hold it all together beyond his ability to cope, for sheer entertainment?

Something is wrong with this picture, and it may not be that our children on the spectrum are the only ones with social/emotional deficits. If a child demonstrates this dearth of empathy, then who is the child with the true need for attention to this specific and dangerous core deficit? It behooves us to have these bullies dealt with early and consistently, to achieve zero tolerance on bullying within our nations’ schools from preschool on up: all of our children should be safe from bullying, all of the time. It is our children’s civil rights we are talking about here, the right to be in the world in a comfortable and safe manner, a right we adults tend to take for granted, but one that is often taken away from vulnerable children whose right to be respected are not always a given.

Families who have members with autism understand anxiety as an intrinsic part of the experience, but how much of this anxiety comes from society rather than the child? I personally feel the most painful part of raising Danny were other people’s reactions to his autism. I would be ever vigilant in public that my son wasn’t being the target of any danger or ridicule, and this bounced from my fear of him in physical danger to my terror of psychological harm; once he went to USC this all reached a crescendo when he was hit by a car on his bicycle one terrible morning within a semester where he first suffered unrequited love. Low level anxiety has been a grating background hum to my life since Danny was diagnosed, either the dull ache of growing apprehension or the sharp recognition of danger coming but not full recognized. I am very aware that the anxiety I’ve felt pales in comparison the levels of anxiety that children with autism experience, and I’ve come to see anxiety as the enemy to happiness for those on the autism spectrum, and for those who love them.

'North Star Nardi and Jack''North Star Nardi and Jack'

For Kumari’s pups, the coming year will have them all moving deeper into the details of public access: it’s a wide world out there, and we need our North Star dogs granted public access rights socialized and trained with confidence and intelligence. Local positive trainers work with our North Star families to achieve this continuing education as the months pass, and along the way the child and North Star dog become ambassadors for kindness and tolerance for the child wherever their entwined journey takes them. It may be impossible to admire a North Star dog and also bully the child on the other end of the leash, for it is clear that the majority of children will melt at the sight of an adorable and well socialized puppy.

If you, like me, are thinking of the minority of children, who would still bully despite the barrier of a warm and friendly dog in the mix, then I would say this group of children may be waving huge red flags, especially if they have been caught hurting or killing an animal before, no matter how small or long ago; with any given child, perhaps one or two red flags can wave uneasily in the breeze, but if another vivid flag joins it, then this is a child that needs to be targeted for important work designed to develop the quality of empathy in the child and address any underlying neurological or psychological issues. This is a child we can’t ignore, for the larger reasons as well as the smaller, more human ones…this is a child who is hurting and so wants to hurt others.

And I am mindful of my continuing bias, as most of us have, to employ the psychological as cause of behavior we don’t understand; perhaps the child who bullies another child or harms animal is simply under the sway of a type of severe learning disability. Recognition that a child isn’t developing empathy for a physical reason will allow parents and school systems to get on the right side of early intervention here, to see if the development of empathy can be aided by cutting edge techniques.

The shooter at Sandy Hook, Adam, was on the autism spectrum, and as the core feature of autism is a difficulty taking other’s perspectives, I believe the link to autism has to be examined in our national dialog on school shooting and how to prevent them. Could Adam’s autism have played into the horrific act he committed? I don’t think we can discount this possibility, or to recognize that a majority of mass murderers and school shooters seems to be suffering from some type of developmental difference or mental illness; being vulnerable to the sway of violence is only part of the equation, however. Within Adam’s home environment he may have been given the wrong message about guns that proved a devastating companion to his stunted development of empathy.

But I believe we also need to recognize just how wide spread lack of empathy is nowadays, and to wonder if Adam’s lack of empathy toward others might have been increased by our culture via the video games Adam played so frequently. Violent images can certainly play into vulnerable minds, and this is the kind of thing we need to examine if we want to ensure no stone is left unturned in our attempt to end school shootings.

On a personal note, I’ve found children with autism to be quite capable of developing empathy. In fact, in my own family, Danny is usually the first to know if I grow suddenly upset by way of my expression and behavior; I’m quite sure he senses this shift in mood in me on an intuitive level, but he also knows what this shift means intellectually, and how he can help me to find my way back to happiness, which he does in a charming and very effective way.

It is a social dance I’m describing, but behind Dan’s carefully constructed knowledge of the specific steps he should take, he genuinely cares about my feelings as well as others. This gives him a flair that helps him float his way over the dance floor most of the time, but on rare occasions I can catch a glimpse of Dan’s rough edges, usually through a judgmental and pedantic view that sticks and catches. At such times it is always continuing education that saves the day, buffing and polishing Dan’s understanding of the social and emotional universe we share both inside as well as outside our home to get him more in line with his surrounding community. Raising any child is a lifelong endeavor, and raising a child with autism is something that has eternity written all over it. Ultimately acceptance of the role of parent of a child with autism requires developing the skill to create peaceful and appropriately designed environments and help in fashioning peaceful and communicative relationships with others. No one can grow up healthy in a vacuum.

And I think this ends up a necessary for the family of the child with autism, not a luxury. It is dangerous to have people grow up disconnected to their communities, scary to have a child not developing empathy, unacceptable to have even one child alienated from a society that is meant to cradle, not abandon, them.

Once you accept a child with autism for who he or she truly is, managing to keep preexisting notions at bay, then and only then can you relax into a relationship with them, which can often be a delightful experience. Assistance or therapy dogs can add to this experience in a variety of ways, largely by virtue of their nonjudgmental attitude, unconditional love and perpetual good mood.

Life is lived one step at a time. What that step consists of is completely up to you: do you dance that step, do you sing while you move forward, do you walk with confidence or cower with trepidation? Is there a dog by your side that matches your stride? At the end of the day raising a child on the spectrum successfully can be done without the aid of an autism assistance or therapy dog, but if dogs are not a valid choice for your family or child with autism, there are lots of other ways to reach that child with creativity and enthusiasm. Supporting their child’s passion is the single best piece of advice I could offer any family of a child or children on the spectrum, besides being careful to always keep respect the cornerstone of your relationship.

You may not get a choice as to what the substance of any challenge a child may face when you bring them into this world, but the style you bring to your life together is completely up to you.

And as for me, I’m still waiting for the Age of Aquarius, when love will finally steer the stars…

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