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'Parenthood' Goes to the Dogs

Sept. 20, 2012 | Beth Arky

When I settle in for my weekly fix of Parenthood, I'm always prepared for an emotional roller-coaster ride. But this episode was particularly wild. As an over-the-top dog lover, I knew I was in for it as soon as I saw Kristina cooing over puppy websites on her laptop. When husband Adam registered his skeptical but admittedly legitimate concerns—"I love dogs but I also know what a royal pain in the ass having a puppy can be"—she responded readily that "research shows that this dog would be good for Max," their Aspie son. "They're compatible with kids on the autism spectrum." 

Max and a puppyI know I feel happy around furry friends who are always excited to see me, provide unconditional love, and—this is key, now that I'm a mom—don't talk back. And Kristina's right, there are studies saying pets, and dogs in particular, help those on the autism spectrum in a wide range of ways, from improving socialization skills to providing comfort and decreasing anxiety. Learning to bond with a cat or dog may, for example, help an autistic child interact with people. A child or teen like Max, accompanied by a dog, is bound to draw other kids, and potential friends, while the pet provides a natural topic of conversation.

Jean Winegardner, who blogs at Stimeyland, doesn't need to see statistics to be convinced. "I think animals can be a really great, low-pressure way for people on the spectrum to connect with another creature," says the mother of three boys, including autistic son Jack, 9. "I've watched my son bond strongly with his pets, especially our late cat, Izzy." Winegardner, who wrote recently about coming out about her own autism, says, "I know that I have always felt a kinship with animals as well. They can be both family and friend without all of the complicated social interaction."

There were some twists and turns along the way, but by the end of the episode Max and his formerly leery father had adopted an adorable black and white puppy. I'm sure I wasn't the only viewer thrilled to see the often remote-looking boy so overjoyed by his new pet. But based on the jolting finale—no spoiler here, other than to say I could have passed on this particular cliff-hanger—Max isn't the only Braverman who will be seeking comfort from an always-loving friend.

Stay tuned for an upcoming piece by Beth Arky exploring how companion, service, and therapy animals can help children with psychiatric and learning disorders. 

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