KUALA LUMPUR, Dec 3 — Six-year-old Omar Mirza Muammar may seem like any ordinary child growing up healthily at a glance, but unlike his peers, he possesses a special bond with an animal that someone with his circumstances might forge.
The eldest of two children, Omar Mirza showed signs of autism spectrum disorder (ASD) at an early age and was diagnosed with severe autism at the age of two, when his parents first noticed his nonverbal and limited speech traits.
His condition worsened with age, developing into bouts of autistic meltdowns — an involuntary response to nervous system overload similar to a temper tantrum.
Following the diagnosis, his parents had consulted various speech therapists, and it was only in recent months that Omar Mirza’s condition improved considerably through the inclusion of various programmes including animal-assisted therapy (AAT) organised by the National Autism Society of Malaysia (Nasom).
In Malaysia. Omar Mirza is just one of few special needs children to have benefited from AAT, an alternative intervention designed to improve a patient’s social, emotional, or cognitive functioning irrespective of their age.
Still not widely established in Malaysia, AAT struggles with acceptance in part due to the belief that therapy animals are limited to canines, which are not socially accepted by all.
Malaysia is a Muslim majority country, where most adherents of Islam view dogs to be impure creatures, with contact requiring Muslims to perform ritual cleansing before they are allowed to perform prayers.
“But now we are going to break that perception. Animals are animals, so when you have animal therapy you can use any such as fish or rabbit,” Suriya Kumari Ramiah of Universiti Putra Malaysia (UPM) told Malay Mail at an AAT programme for autistic children held at the National Zoo recently.
“It is time to move forward and channel resources into studying possible applications of AAT, using animals other than dogs, within our local context.”
Stigma aside, Suriya Kumari said studies have shown that children with special needs who received AAT exhibited a greater level of change in social skills, perspective taking, theory of mind, and decreased feelings of isolation and depression.
She also said she had no doubt that real and meaningful emotional bonds could exist between humans and animals, nor about the human health benefits — both physical and psychological — that could result.
“However, as in all matters pertaining to an ever-evolving society, there is always room for improvement,” Suriya Kumari, who holds a doctorate in Animal Physiology, said.
A brief history of AAT
While AAT is yet to be popular in Malaysia, the therapeutic potential of animals has already been recognised since at least two centuries ago.
In the late 1800s, Florence Nightingale — who is widely considered the founder of modern nursing — made substantial discoveries regarding AAT when she observed that small pets helped reduce anxiety in children and adults living in psychiatric institutions.
In her book Notes on Nursing published in 1859, Nightingale wrote that “a small pet animal is often an excellent companion for the sick, for long chronic cases especially. A pet bird in a cage is sometimes the only pleasure of an invalid confined for years to the same room.”
While some may say this was the beginning of “animal therapy,” it was not until decades later when American psychologist Boris Mayer Levinson made a chance discovery after a nonverbal and severely withdrawn child began communicating with his dog, Jingles, by talking to it during treatment.
This milestone discovery would eventually lead to the use of canines in therapy after Levinson’s first article about the human-animal bond cemented the way to later research and ideas in this field.
He would later go on to be known as one of the fathers of the field of AAT and also the individual who coined the term “pet therapy”.
Calling it a dream come true, Suriya Kumari also revealed the successful introduction of AAT as part of a high-quality veterinary physiology teaching for special needs students at SK Serdang which runs an existing integrated special education programme.
Under her tutelage, existing special needs students at the school are taught how to look after low maintenance animals such as rabbits, chickens and even fishes as part of their school curriculum.
“These (programmes) make them excited and they feel the urge to go school, and I remembered immediately after the launching, the school’s headmaster observed an immediate effect for one of the special needs children with noticeable reduced anxiety levels.
“So, we can see a special bonding taking place between the child and the animal.
“I hope to implement this in school curriculum elsewhere because certain parents from the lower-income group may not be able to afford private therapies and thus we need to cater for everybody as well,” she said.
For National Zoo vice president Datuk Rosly@Rahmat Ahmat Lana, seeing the special needs children bonding with the zoo’s animals is a welcome and touching sight.
“Personally, I think I wish to see how I and the zoo can help in the future. I have heard of AAT before but not in detail until today’s event.
“We will definitely discuss with Dr Suriya to learn more and perhaps adopt some of her ideas for it to be experienced by not just special needs children, but other visitors as well,” he told Malay Mail.
Similarly, Nasom secretary Cason Ong Tsze Chuan applauded the event jointly organised by Piepie Pet Memorial and the National Zoo to promote AAT as a proven intervention for special needs children such as those diagnosed with autism.
Cason said Nasom had in the past organised equine-assisted therapies at the Bukit Kiara Equestrian Club, but the programme had to be discontinued due to the struggle in horses and handlers availability.
Nevertheless, he attested to the significant change in behaviour of these children from being hyperactive to calm when given the opportunity to approach the horses.
“Especially those who are hyperactive, once they have (established) connection with the animals, they seem to be very calm and same goes for the horses that are being restless,” he said.
As for Omar Mirza’s parents, they could not hide their happiness of seeing their extremely reserved son interacting with the animals under the AAT programme in his first trip to the National Zoo.
“I have never heard or experienced AAT until today, so this is my first exposure. The programme was very well-executed.
“We do have the occasional stray cats wandering in which we allow Omar to pet, but now after knowing about AAT, we could perhaps try the new approach on Omar to let him play with the cats,” Omar’s father Muammar Mustafa said.