Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 17 November 2019

Abu Dhabi mum: rescue centre tried to take dog from my autistic son

Families hit out at misconceptions about link between autism and animal cruelty

Khawla Barley says her son, 11-year-old Abdulla Al Mansouri, has bonded closely with his pet dog Finn despite early efforts to separate them Victor Besa / The National
Khawla Barley says her son, 11-year-old Abdulla Al Mansouri, has bonded closely with his pet dog Finn despite early efforts to separate them Victor Besa / The National

Experts have asserted that there is no link between autism and cruelty, after it was reported that an unsupervised autistic teenager had thrown three kittens from an apartment window.

Following reports of the incident, conversations were started online as to whether people with certain conditions should be trusted with animals.

Studies show, however, that most autistic children bond strongly with pets, particularly dogs. Research has also shown that playing with a pet can improve an autistic child’s social skills.

Khawla Barley took a puppy from a rescue centre this year. When the centre managers found out her son Abdullah Al Mansouri, 11, had autism, they tried to take the dog back.

They justified this by saying “all people with autism are aggressive”, she said.

Ms Barley, who founded and operates the charity Goals UAE, which helps to give children on the autistic spectrum access to free or low-cost art, music and sports workshops, refused to return the dog, with the backing of the country’s pet adoption regulators.

A few months later and Abdullah and the dog, Finn, have bonded closely.

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Read more:

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“I was shocked because the rescue dog had spent hours with my son and the person had seen them together,” Ms Barley said. “They had done a home visit and we spent three solid hours at an adoption day.

“Weeks later they said they wanted the dog back. It was sickening. It seemed crazy to me because we had cats previously, and I don’t know why, but my son was always their favourite.

“What you hear anecdotally is it’s much easier for kids with social impairments to relate to an animal as there’s less pressure.”

A 2014 study found that 94 per cent of parents with autistic children and a dog said their child bonded strongly with the pet. Even in families without dogs, seven in 10 said their children enjoyed interacting with the animals.

While it is advisable to consider a child’s sensitivities and family dynamics before introducing an animal to their home, research has shown autistic children who had a family pet from a young age had better social skills than those who did not.

“It’s important people realise there is no oppression issue towards animals,” Ms Barley said. “Abdullah is the first one to wake up in the morning so he lets the puppy out of his sleeping room, feeds him and lets him out into the courtyard.

“He does a lot independently. He’s very capable in caring for Finn. They have a very nice relationship. But people can be very derogatory.

“We have the Special Olympics, all of the UAE leadership promoting inclusion and disability rights, but many people don’t seem to understand that.”

Her conclusions were backed up by Pam Olsen, chief programme officer at the Mohammed bin Rashid Centre for Special Education, who oversees services for more than 200 children with autism.

“If an individual with autism harms an animal, it is more likely accidental rather than deliberate,” Ms Olsen said.

“Pets can be a companion for them, same as for non-autistic children. Some of the children with autism that we work with are highly motivated by the opportunity to visit animal shelters to interact with and learn about the pets.

“People who believe that all children with special needs will harm animals should take the time to learn more about people with special needs.”

Updated: December 27, 2018 10:29 PM

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