Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Is my dog autistic?

As the “about me” section on this blog indicates, I am a social worker. I have been working with people with disabilities for ten years, and I must admit that I am sometimes fascinated with the corollaries between my career and my hobby. I guess this shouldn't be a surprise; the principles of behavior are similar regardless of species, after all.

Recently, one of my clients with autism was really struggling, so we called in a behavior analyst to help figure out what's going on with him. In doing so, I learned about Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD), a controversial condition which is not fully accepted by the medical community. SPD and autism are not the same thing (which technically means that my post title is inaccurate, even if it's catchier this way), but sensory issues are common in people with autism.

So what is SPD? It's what happens when a person's sensory system cannot process sensory input (what they see, hear, touch, etc.) the same way other people do. Some people over-process what's going on around them, while others under-process sensory input, but either way, they are typically quite sensitive to the environment. As a result, seemingly normal levels of sensory input can result in what might appear to be odd behaviors. I'm sure the behavior seems completely logical to the person, though. In fact, if you or I experienced a similar intensity of sensory input, we'd likely react the same way. In short, it's the amount of sensory input required to "feel normal" that seems to differ between the person with SPD and the one without it.

According to SensorySmarts.com, these are some common signs of sensory processing problems:
  • Out-of-proportion reactions to touch, sounds, sights, movement, tastes, or smells.
  • Motor skill and body awareness difficulties.
  • Poor attention and focus.
  • Uncomfortable or easily overstimulated in group settings.
  • Difficulty with self-confidence and independence.
Sound familiar? All of those symptoms, save perhaps the second one, are often seen in reactive dogs.

The first one is especially relevant: by definition, reactivity is when a dog overreacts to something. The intensity of their behavior- Maisy lunges and loudly barks or growls, for example- is out-of-proportion in comparison to the the stimuli that triggered that reaction. I've always assumed that reactivity is rooted in anxiety, but is it possible that the anxiety is because the dog is having trouble processing the sensory input around him? Maybe. I know that many of my clients with sensory issues are also diagnosed with anxiety, so there could be a connection.

Poor attention and focus is often seen in our reactive dogs, too. They often seem distracted, and need to look around a lot. Maisy used to scan the environment for prolonged periods in response to innocuous sounds. It seemed like she couldn't filter them out the way other dogs can. Is this because her brain has trouble processing auditory input?

Being easily overstimulated in group settings is a no-brainer, at least for Maisy. While she can maintain her composure fairly well in small groups, each additional person or dog pushes her that much closer to her threshold. This is getting better with medication, but it really does seem like she becomes more uncomfortable when there are too many things to keep track of. Is this anxiety? A lack of socialization? Or is it because there is too much sensory input to process?

Difficulty with self-confidence might seem like a stretch, but even so, I can see how it fits: Maisy has always been cautious and worried. She hates when things move underfoot, she's reluctant to walk on odd surfaces, and she's generally suspicious of novel experiences. In other words: she lacks confidence. It make sense, in a way: if she's having difficulty processing what's going on around her, wouldn't that affect her confidence in her ability to interact with the world?

So there you have it: if Maisy were a person, she might have SPD. Of course, she's not a person, so all of this is really just anthropomorphic foolishness on my part. Then why make the comparison at all? First, let me assure you that I am certainly not trying to make a negative comparison, although I'm aware this post could be offensive to people who live with autism or SPD in one way or another. I have several friends and loved ones with disabilities, so this is certainly not my intent.

Instead, beyond the fact that it's intellectually interesting to speculate about, I also spend a lot of time trying to help people with autism or SPD obtain services that allow them to interact with the world more fully. Since my goal is to help Maisy do the same, it seems natural that there might be some concepts in treating humans that I can borrow for my own purposes. In my next post, I'll talk about one especially interesting idea that I recently ran across. I'm excited to share it with you! In the meantime, though, let me know what you think. Does my comparison have any merit, or have I crossed a line I really shouldn't have?


Ashley said...

Really interesting comparison! I personally do not think you've crossed a line. We extrapolate a lot of other comparisons between dogs (or other mammals) and humans, like experiencing pain, so why not sensory processing?

Looking forward to the next post.

Kirby, CGC said...

I have often thought of that way about Kirby. I have a niece with SPD, in the beginning we just thought she over reacted to everything, but after seeing professionals they did diagnose her with it and it made perfect sense. Kirby can go ballistic at the sight of a dog, but not all dogs and gets a little leary of people but not all people. He can actually anticipate a dog to be somewhere even though there isn't one, but only because there was one there yesterday! My niece is the same way over things. So I agree with you, I think it's possible for animals to have it too! Can't wait to read your next post!

Cheryl, Kirby's mom

Laura, Lance, and Vito said...

Well I'm sure you've read Temple Grandin's books relating animals to people with autism!

I also wouldn't doubt if individual animals are "autistic" as compared to the rest of their species.

I don't know what I think about reactive dogs being reactive because of sensory problems though. Interesting to think about.

Crystal Thompson said...

Thanks everyone!

Ashley, I like your point that we extrapolate in other areas. That's true, but I'm also aware that some people think we dog people are kooky for doing so.

Kirby, that's very interesting about your niece.

Laura, it's actually been a few years since I've read Temple Grandin, and I've only read one of her books. Maybe I should grab the other one (I might even own it- I sort of hoard books). I have no idea if dogs are reactive due to sensory issues, but it is interesting to explore the idea. Basically, I think it may be true for some dogs, but not for them all.

Tegan said...

Can you make an easy Tweet button on your blog? I'm getting sick of posting all your great posts 'the long way'. :D

Your foolish antrhopomorphism was a great read. :)

The Pet Care Magician said...

Very interesting thoughts Crystal. I will have to give this more thought but as I am three dog washes away from 4 weeks leave I am low flying to get everything done. I look forward to your next post and trying to match these thoughts to my reactive miniature poodle.

Regards Louise Kerr
The pet care magician. www.elitepetcare.com.au

Crystal Thompson said...

Tegan- I'll try to do that. I'm not sure where that setting is, so I'll have to poke around looking for it... probably won't have time until tomorrow or even the weekend, though.

Crystal Thompson said...

Tegan, I figured it out! Share buttons on every post. Let me know if they work (or don't!).

WonderPupsMom said...

Hi Crystal...
As you may remember, Gilda is similar to Maisy in many ways especially her reactivity. I heard something the other day that helped me to better understand some of Gilda's issues: "Herding Dogs have a tendency to be reactive because it is in their genes to be alert to every sound and every movement in an effort to better protect the herd". Makes sense right? Add to that poor socialization as a pup and other stressers and here we are!

Crystal Thompson said...

Makes total sense, Dee. I love herding breeds, but the super sensitivity is hard sometimes.

Christy said...

Hi Crystal
I have a large minature pinscher who seems to be highly intelligent, antisocial, nervous and loves deep pressure. I also am in the field of special needs and have discussed the similarities of Autistic characteristics. Would be interesting to learn more. Looking forward to your next post.


Suzanne Ford said...

I read article about SPD in children and felt it fit our Cairn rescue amazingly close. Spencer was a puppy mill/pet store reject rescued by us at six months. His behaviors are annoying at best, but he bit our granddaughter on her last visit. He's extra hyper with other people around. Hope you can offer us a little hope.

Suzanne Ford said...

I read article about SPD in children and felt it fit our Cairn rescue amazingly close. Spencer was a puppy mill/pet store reject rescued by us at six months. His behaviors are annoying at best, but he bit our granddaughter on her last visit. He's extra hyper with other people around. Hope you can offer us a little hope.