Sunday, February 24, 2008

Aquariums May Help Kids With Autism

Horses Also Help With Sensory Integration Disorder

If 12-year-old Chandler Kinney's mother turns her back for long enough, Chandler has dashed next door or close to the fence to play with Einstein, a golden retriever who lives next door.

"She absolutely loves dogs," Paula Kinney, Chandler's mother, said. "She will sit at the fence for hours. She will let him lick her hands and she will just rub him."

Chandler is autistic and developmentally delayed. Although she is 12, she behaves like a 4-year-old.

Autism is a complex neurobiological disorder that affects 1 in 150 individuals. According to AutismSpeaks.org, the disorder occurs in all racial, ethnic and social groups and is four times more likely to strike boys than girls. Autism impairs a person's ability to communicate and relate to others.

Benefits Of Animals

Kinney understands the health benefits that animals can offer to her daughter, but has elected not to get a dog because she is waiting for her 2-year-old to get a little older before taking on additional responsibility.

But, when Kinney learned about a new product, the biOrb aquarium, designed to help autistic children, she said she would definitely be open to trying anything that would help her daughter.

"Yes, I would definitely be interested in something like that -- and if it has lights," Kinney said.

The biOrb aquarium combines the look of a traditional fish bowl with the performance of a high-tech aquarium, featuring a blue light. It is an 8-gallon, globe-style aquarium and can serve as the home to both tropical and coldwater fish.

The biOrb aquariums, produced by Reef-One and Casco, came about after research suggested that watching fish can help reduce stress and anxiety, promote relaxation and enhance learning abilities to provide healing benefits for children with autism.

Reef-One President Paul Stevenson said the aquariums, which are made with Plexiglas, are kid-proof. The company will also donate some of the biOrb aquariums to AutismSpeaks.

Mom Says Animals Beat Activities

Kinney has tried several different activities, such as music and motion classes, swimming, horseback riding, roller-skating and occupational, physical and speech therapy, to help Chandler.

She said that she noticed the benefits of the activities, but horseback riding in particular helped.

"She also has sensory integration disorder, so she was really clumsy," Kinney said. "She didn't have good body awareness, and the horseback riding and skating really helped."

An Arizona-based program specializes in treating autistic children with sensory integration disorder.

Michelle Muller, owner and founder of Autism Spectrum Alternative Program, involves all the members of a family in horseback riding.

She said that autistic children have a sixth sense, and they don't connect to the world using the five senses that most people use.

"(The way they communicate is) just not the same as ours," she said. "It's like a different language."

Muller said she provides hippotherapy, which involves riding a horse as well as equine-facilitated therapy, which is a whole-body experience that includes riding, feeding and touching the horse.

"It's not drug-related," Muller said. "It's all natural. It's all going back to the basics."

She said the response she gets from her families is pretty close to amazing because communication lines are finally opened.

"I haven't see a child yet that doesn't light up when on a horse. They are just in bodies that don't respond to their minds," she said. "Their mind is trapped in a body that can't communicate."

The 5-year-old program also involves yoga, color therapy and relaxation techniques.

Muller, who uses an 8-acre ranch, said it brings her great joy to watch a child ride up a hill and finally reach the top and scream, "I did it!"

Get Your Child Involved

There are many ways to get your own child involved with animals, whether he or she is autistic or not. Allowing them to care for fish can be a great way to develop responsibility without having the schedule of walking a pet like a dog. Rodents or cats can also help your child develop a schedule and bond with a pet at the same time.

If you have the time and energy to care for a dog, they can provide companionship, responsibility and physical activity.

If you want a dog but worry about your child not taking much responsibility or growing too attached, consider a foster program that allows you and your child to care for a pet while it waits for a permanent home.

Check with your local Humane Society to see if you and your children can volunteer to walk pets or play with cats, or check withVolunteerMatch.org to see if there are any child-friendly volunteer opportunities available.

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