Milan boy uses dogs in therapy program

Beth Rumsey, Staff Writer

Christian Merida, 11, a fifth grader at Milan Elementary, loves his dogs, enjoys helping his stepmom in the kitchen and participating in 4-H even though he is diagnosed with autism.

Autism is a neurological disorder that affects social and communication skills. Two children with the same diagnosis may behave differently because the symptoms of autism vary widely. According to the Center for Disease Control, approximately six of every 1,000 children have some form of autism. There are over 5,000 children in Indiana with autism.

According to his step-mom Jill, Christian has Asperger’s Syndrome, a high functioning form of autism. “There was always something different about him, but we didn’t know what it was,” said Jill. She went to several doctors concerning her son, but it wasn’t until Christian’s second grade teacher began sending home notes and documenting his behavior that Christian was referred to a psychologist. The psychologist helps Christian’s parents to form rules and consequences and to provide a consistent routine. In order to expose Christian to different types of social activities, the psychologist suggested pet therapy.

Animal Assisted Therapy, or pet therapy, provides an experience with an animal that is non-judgmental, unconditional affection, and opportunities for emotional and physical therapy. These animals help the child to develop self-esteem and social skills. While there are many choices for pet therapy, from horses to dolphins, one of the top choices is a dog. This was also Christian’s choice.
The only time you get a real smile from Christian is if a dog is with him, said his mother. Christian’s sister shows dogs in 4-H, so he was familiar with the work. He and his dog Sultan attend a meeting once a week to practice showing the dog and to learn more about taking care of his dog. This provides him with opportunities to talk to others in a comfortable setting.

Christian’s parents, Calvin and Jill, also raise miniature schnauzers. Christian, his brothers, Brandon and Sean, and sister Rebecca assist in different ways from feeding to cleaning up after them.

According to his mother, Christian chooses the smallest pup from the litter and nurtures it. When the time comes to sell the puppy, Christian will then tell the buyer all about the dog’s likes and dislikes; and about the dog’s personality.

His mother told how Christian took care of a puppy he named Flower from the time she was six weeks old. No one would buy her because she was really small. Christian then pitched the idea of owning a dog to his grandmother, Dianna Stewart of Roselawn, and convinced her to take in Flower. Christian and Flower, renamed Tilly, now have many opportunities to play when he visits.

Showing the dogs in 4-H, and helping with the family business, helps Christian build his social skills by providing him with a conversation starter. It gives him something to talk about. Christian has won first premium ribbons with his 4-H poster entry, and has received a plaque for perfect attendance. “He was the only one who received one,” said Jill proudly.

Christian Merida proudly displays his 4-H poster entry that won first premium ribbons. He and Sultan, his dog, attended a weekly 4-H meeting to practice showing his dog, who is featured in the poster pictures.