I wish I could say my son loved and related to animals, but I can’t. I read about other kids with neuro-atypicality similar to his who bond with pets, especially ADHD kids, and I am jealous. Clark never has.
When he was seven, we bought a puppy. Theoretically, this was going to be his dog. What a fine, handsome yellow lab puppy he was, too. Cowboy would have loved nothing more than to be Clark’s dog, to fetch him sticks, to play chase, to splash in the mud together. Except Clark had no interest in the real live animal. All his energy and excitement about getting the puppy lasted for about three minutes. It wasn’t that Cowboy disappointed him, hurt him, or scared him. He just didn’t measure up to being the most exciting thing in Clark’s very narrow frame of reference. Cowboy couldn’t outshine a book or a computer game, for instance. So the dog moved on to Clark’s five-year old, neuro-typical sister Susanne, who adored him. They remain best friends ‘til this day.
When Clark was ten, we got a cat. We thought that possibly a lower maintenance animal that could curl up with him when he was involved in a sedentary pursuit would give him a creature he could relate to. No such luck. Juliet also became Susanne’s.
Over the years, we added fish, a guinea pig, a live pig, five more dogs, and another cat. Like with any child, we had to beg him to take care of them. Unlike with our other four kids, though, no animal got through to him. No animal ever rose to “the most important thing in my four seconds-left-to-live” worldview. The animals shouldn’t feel too bad about that, though, because most people didn’t rise to that level either. We knew he loved us, I knew I was the central figure in his life, but that didn’t mean he needed to talk to us, unless required. Clark was not an interacter. He wasn’t asocial. He just didn’t know how to engage, or really care to, other than, well, theoretically. He floated around the fringe.
Eventually, in his mid-teens, Clark started maturing enough that the worst of his social inabilities passed. He was still the odd kid that might say the extremely unfunny and awkward comment, loudly, but he found a niche with people that “got” him, at the same time as his assertiveness grew.
That’s when we got Petey. Petey is a Boston Terrier. When he first came home with us, he was barely over six pounds. Petey was terrified of Clark, and Clark was only mildly interested in Petey, certainly not interested enough to try to figure out how to engage with the small creature. By then, Clark was nearly 16.
Cowboy was jealous of Petey, even more so because Susanne was infatuated with the new puppy. One morning, little Petey got between Cowboy and his food. Petey’s cries were heart-wrenching. I ran and scooped him up, only to discover that Cowboy had somehow knocked Petey’s googly left eye right out of its socket. Now I cried along with Petey. Well, that was more than Clark could take.
“BAD DOG,” he yelled, sending Cowboy hunkering onto his belly on the ground. Clark dragged Cowboy outside. “Mom, it’s going to be OK, calm down.” Clark put his very big arm around me and squeezed.
It wasn’t OK right away, but, in the end, Clark was right. Petey only needed one eye to become a swaggering dynamo of boundless personality. And he only needed one eye to become Cowboy’s best friend. It’s a relationship that makes us laugh and, occasionally, shiver in terror.
I’d love to claim that overnight Clark took to Petey and learned how to love him. He didn’t. But slowly he did soften up for the funny little creature. It took leaving Petey and Clark alone a few evenings together to cement the relationship, but now Petey jumps up into Clark’s lap on the couch, and Clark strokes those always-moving oversized black ears. Clark can say whatever wacky comment enters his mind. Petey doesn’t care. He yawns and snuggles closer. Clark still has no relationship with any of our other animals, but empathy for Petey’s pain made it through to Clark’s center, just as empathy for my pain over Petey touched Clark’s heart. Empathy.
And I realize that is it. That is the key. The most fundamental way Clark relates to others – animal or human – is through empathy. Other people don’t always “get” him, and he sure doesn’t understand how to fit in with them. He can’t even figure out how to play with a normal dog, for goodness sake. But when he feels the pain of another creature he cares about, that’s when we see the soft center in Clark as well.
Clark would still rather watch a YouTube video of a dog than watch a real dog, or play a game online with a dog in it than play with Cowboy. We saw him bridge the divide with Petey, though, and it opened a window into his soul for us.
In his core, that boy must love dogs after all.
How do your kids do with animals?