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
According to his step-mom Jill, Christian has Aspergers
Syndrome, a high functioning form of autism. There was always
something different about him, but we didnt know what it
was, said Jill. She went to several doctors concerning her
son, but it wasnt until Christians second grade teacher
began sending home notes and documenting his behavior that Christian
was referred to a psychologist. The psychologist helps Christians
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 Christians
The only time you get a real smile from Christian is if a dog
is with him, said his mother. Christians 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.
Christians 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
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 dogs likes
and dislikes; and about the dogs 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