Autism is a funny thing. -written by Nici Maxwell

People say things like : ‘ it’s a spectrum’, ‘everyone is a little bit autistic’ and ‘I didn’t realise autistic people could do that’. I’ve always been drawn to people that are a bit different and I guess that means I have more friends ‘on the spectrum’ than others. I enjoy the company of people that think outside the box and see things in a very black and white way, I guess that’s one of the reasons I why I love my job so much.
Working as a CAL consultant in two SEN schools I work with several young people diagnosed with ASD, a

s well as children with other varying SEN needs. It is commonly thought that a person w

ith autism lacks empathy, but the more I support these young people with animal assisted interventions the more I realise this is not the case. They have empathy in abundance!! They just don’t recognise, or maybe they don’t tolerate, our complicated social politics.

When the young people enter our room they are greeted by Jackson, my waggy, bouncy Labrador. Jackson does not judge, he welcomes them all as if he hasn’t seen them for a year, with his helicopter tail and demand of a belly rub. He does not tell them off for fidgeting or sulk if they don’t want to tell him what they did at the weekend. He accepts them for 100% for who they are. Jackson is my best team mate and work colleague, he has a way of communicating with these young people that no human could ever do.

There are young people that struggle to make physical contact with humans that lie on the floor with Jackson stroking his ears and sharing their days stories. There are young people that can’t make eye contact, that come in and play the ‘trust’ game with Jackson, building a relationship with him by allowing them both to make eye contact with each other before giving him a treat. There are young people that have such high anxieties and OCD traits, that to begin with they haven’t been able to make contact with Jackson. After a few sessions, however, they are feeding him treats out of their hands, delighted that they can make him happy. Those children, with apparently no empathy, will make sure Jackson gets a treat at the end of each session for being a good boy and worry if he’s not settling in a session- telling me ‘we must take him outside’, he needs some fresh air’ or ‘I think he needs a wee’.

Autism is a funny thing, but for Jackson that funny thing means fun and love and friendship. It is a joy to be a CAL consultant guiding these young people down that tricky social path.