When Your Dog is on the Spectrum

Jackson smiling

By Nils Valdis Vytautas Skudra

Although our Bichon Frise, Jackson, has never been formally diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder, it has become increasingly apparent that this is the case.

From the moment we rescued him several years ago from the Guilford County Animal Shelter, his behaviors were decidedly unusual. As we were signing his adoption papers, he leapt out of the not-very-attentive attendant’s arms and ran over and urinated on my brand-new purchased-for-a-pretty-penny Adidas tennis shoes, which was definitely not an acceptable social interaction from our point of view.

Being a Civil War historian I named him after one of my favorite admittedly eccentric Civil War generals, Stonewall Jackson, who reputedly had Asperger’s Syndrome. Considered a brilliant general, he rode into battle on his horse while sucking on lemons and keeping one arm held continuously aloft as if to fend off an ever-present enemy who might topple him from his lofty post.

As soon as Jackson entered our house, he made for the bottom of a low-lying bookcase and snatched a book on his namesake, unresponsive to our screams, and tore the dust jacket to shreds. Perhaps he didn’t like the name he was given or perhaps doggy manners were simply not a part of his skill set. I could see the die was cast (a bow to Shakespeare here) and our new pet, found by a kindly soul in a local park distinguished by its battalions of crawling snakes (whom he had luckily escaped) was not your average canine, being as he was, bent on malice and mischief. I suspect even the snakes gave him a wide berth with some animal intuition that he was an unstable character who might rather hassle them than keep a respectable distance one might normally give to a Copperhead sunning itself sartorially on the grass.

Each succeeding day confirmed my suspicion that Jackson was … well, unusual. A friend referred me to the DSM-5, a tome of psychological literature whose newly revised version came out in 2013) and I turned the pages to the article on Asperger’s Syndrome and autism spectrum disorders.

For a moment my heart sank as I realized he exhibited numerous characteristics of these conditions.

First, there was the matter of the unusual speech pattern. In human individuals, that was oftentimes reflected in flat, high-pitched, or inappropriately loud sounds – Jackson’s play on this was to squeal at high-decibel levels for no apparent reason at all. Even after he’d been fed voluminous amounts of his favorite Nutro foods and snatched a few treats from the kitchen table, including a half-eaten banana and a handful of Whole Food prohibitively-high blueberries, he squealed at the top of his lungs, agitated and disconsolate for no reason we could fathom.

He squealed when he received endless belly rugs and volleys of attention. Instead of the Nike logo “just do it!” he fashioned his own logo “just do it and squeal!” and while all that commotion worked on our nerves, we soon realized that this behavior was part and parcel of who he was and one that the rescue folks conveniently forgot to mention.

Other DSM-5 iterated traits emerged as well in our lovely, squealing pet. Gazing too intently or avoiding eye contact was an everyday event. When Jackson ran into the bathroom and grabbed a roll of toilet paper, shredding it mightily while squealing at the same time, we grabbed what was left, chastening him for his act.

He refused to look us in the eye and instead yanked a shoelace from a shoe, trying to tear that up as well. At the same time he evidenced the hypersensitivity to sensory “assaults” that were described in the DSM-5, yelping when we only barely increased the volume of the Celtic music playing in the background and howling like a banshee when a neighbor knocked on the door asking “is everything all right?” No, it wasn’t, because this dog was clearly not a cookie-cutter type of guy.

When a pot of water began to boil on the burner or the brioche, finishing its term with the toaster, popped up with a “ping” sound, Jackson was on fire, barking at fever pitch as though his whole canine universe was about to implode. When we tried to calm his down, he did what only Bichons do, famously known as the “Bichon Blitz”, racing back and forth across the room for five minutes, hurling himself upon the couch and throwing himself just as soon off into what must have felt like oblivion to him and insanity to us, as he noisily landed on the floor and in so doing, grabbing the Duke Energy bill and tearing that into shreds as well. Since we have often felt like tearing it up ourselves, at least THAT made an ounce of sense in a world of exponentially increasing animal behaviors which we were ill-fitted to account for.

As we read about other autism spectrum characteristics it looked like Jackson fell within the ambit of those too. Struggling socially with social communication and interactions was incontrovertible.

When we took Jackson to the Bi-Centennial Gardens in Greensboro, a very fluffy, dainty and full-of-herself female Bichon flirted with him and coyly licked his face. Her owner said “she’s infatuated with him!” at which point Jackson began squealing and then growling, frightening us all half to death. “Good luck” I thought to myself “of ever getting a date!”
Every other dog that passed our way was the recipient of more growling conduct and several onerous comments from their people who yelled “he needs to be trained! He’s out of control! What a jerk!”

This lack of interest in socializing and making friends we had sometimes seen in his human counterparts who carried an autism diagnosis but it was rather rarified in a canine form. Jackson had challenges with social functioning and difficulty with interpreting and responding to social cues.

When a multi-tatooed teenager walked over with a “nice doggie, here’s a peanut butter biscuit!”, Jackson went ballistic, growling and carrying on, just as he inexplicably had when we watched the “Lassie” video. We thought it might make him more interested in female dogs, but it had the unexpected opposite effect – hurling himself at the TV screen and yelping past the reaches of the highest notes of the piano which to this day still bears the teeth marks of previous enthusiastic attacks on its somehow still-standing wooden legs.

We began to worry that Jackson had challenges with empathy as well. This was a big one in the lexicon of the growing fund of autism literature.

He didn’t seem to know or care about anything that might have given anyone pleasure such as being a cuddlebug, returning affection, or quietly listening to and obeying commands. Talking to him was as good as talking to the proverbial wall.

Everyday was the same situation of restricted and repetitive patterns of interests and activities: chewing up the furniture and the only Kong rubber bone he liked beyond further recognition, pacing back and forth or Blitzing down the hallway at daredevil speed, pouncing on piano sheet music (particularly with glee if it was that of a classical composer), destroying Petsmart toys whose very life could be measured in only an hour or two.

It was undeniable that he had difficulty with changes in routine grandly alluded to in the DSM-5. Our coping mechanisms were growing weak. Remarks soon followed, gently offered observations that “you should take your dog to an animal therapist, he’s not normal, might be autistic or something and require medication.”

This was not a consolation devoutly to be wish’d (Shakespeare again) since we were already paying up the ying-yang for heart medication, Advantage flea chewables, recurrent vaccinations, pricy visits to the spa for haircuts and baths – none of which our Bichon appreciated anyway. “Money down the kitchen sink” a friend cattily remarked to which I responded “we love him anyway!” to which she retorted “Why???”

This animal did not make sense, in either a human or canine vernacular. Even the simplest act of interesting Jackson in new toys (or new anything) resulted in a fail and I began to chalk this up to doggy autism since I had no idea what else to chalk it up to. The DSM-5 seemed to be mocking us but I put it way up high on the bookshelf where it was virtually invisible and before Jackson could tear that up too.

The final icing on the cake was when Jackson ripped a brand new fancy lacy black bra purchased at Belk’s from my mother’s hands as she was about to place it in a dresser drawer and flew through an open door into our finally mowed front yard.

Somehow he tangled himself up in its straps so that the cups were positioned on his back. For just a second I thought “where’s my camera? What a diva! A Hallmark moment!” But then a passing neighbor, taking this in, screamed “what’s that dog doing wearing a bra? For God’s sake, what’s going on here?”

I had visions of him in his polo shirt and impeccably shining penny loafers calling Animal Control and reporting me as some kind of a pervert in the Lindley Park area. But to my surprise I controlled my emotions, explaining “he has a strange sense of humor, he’s in a cross-dressing phase!” Still the neighbor’s eyes looked apopletic and he just stared angrily as I picked Jackson up, squealing and growling and took him into the sanctuary of our happy but disorganized home. It took me a good ten minutes to get him out of the bra which he seemed more than content to be in but at least he was out of the sight of a neighbor’s reproving stare.

Over time we have come to the inevitable conclusion that Jackson is on the spectrum and search for and utilize all the community supports we can find. We gingerly introduce him to other dogs (including stuffed ones and those in movies) but scale our expectations for his being interested down to a standard of “tolerates but does not welcome” others. We accept the fact that he’s only interested in the same old doggie treats and that his social functioning can only be tweaked so far.

When we took a trip to UNC, Chapel Hill and walked past the storied Old Well, he showed himself to be no respecter of appropriate tradition or etiquette. Lurching forward, he peed voluminously upon that structure before we could halt the offending behavior. Students and other passers-by were not amused although I jauntily told one “he has a problem with incontinence, couldn’t help himself.”

We didn’t mention that our dog was autistic and had difficulty complying with social norms and morays.

Nevertheless the devil’s advocate in me says: why should we have to be constant apologists for him anyway? The truth is we love Jackson and no longer let any disability he may have define him. We are open about his being autistic and urge others to see the many lovely qualities he has – intelligence, humor, focus, determination, and loyalty (sleeping on the bed rain or shine every night next to his boy who takes that conduct as the absolute evidence and imprimatur of canine affection).

As for the DSM-5, it still sits on the bookshelf, now collecting dust, and no longer a focus of our interest. If Jackson somehow gets his paws on that veritable text, we can overlook the fact of his tearing it up although we may rebuke him for conduct unbecoming.

Nils Skudra

I am an artist on the autism spectrum. I received an MA specializing in Civil War/Reconstruction history at the University of North Carolina, Greensboro, and I have been drawing hundreds of Civil War-themed pictures since the age of five and a half. As a person with Asperger’s Syndrome, I have a very focused set of interests, and the Civil War is my favorite historical event within that range of interests. It is therefore my fervent desire to become a Civil War historian and have my Civil War artwork published in an art book for children. I am also very involved in the autism community and currently serve as the President/Head Officer of Spectrum at UNCG, an organization I founded for students on the autism spectrum. The goal of the organization is to promote autism awareness and foster an inclusive community for autistic students on the UNCG campus. The group has attracted some local publicity and is steadily gaining new members, and we shall be hosting autism panels for classes on campus in the near future.

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