Posted: Aug 30, 2014 8:00 AM
 
I'm not going to lie. When I saw a post on Facebook about a mom building a chicken coop for her child's chicken therapy, I balked (bocked?). I've written about hippotherapy and art therapy… but chicken therapy? Had this mom flown her coop?
Photo credit: Jeremy Wallace

Then I began to research and discovered the incredible benefits of chickens — yes, those feathery, foolish birds known best for pecking the ground repeatedly. From autism to Alzheimer's, chicken therapy can make a solid and encouraging difference.

Caele and Rick Gambs's youngest son, Ethan, was diagnosed with autism three years ago. Now 6 years old, he is a sweet boy who loves to swing as high as he can on the backyard swing set but hangs back from visitors with a distinct shyness, not aloofness.

That's not unusual behavior for a child with an autism spectrum disorder (ASD). Being social can feel like the hardest thing in the world for someone with autism, and parents often focus on helping their child learn to interact and feel more comfortable with peers and adults.

Pets as therapy

As has become common, doctors and therapists recommended Caele and Rick get a pet for Ethan. You see, children often respond positively to pets, everyone told the Gambs, and having the pet gives a child with autism something to talk about with others — a natural conversation starter and catalyst to being more social.

The advice made sense. "When you're thinking of anything you can do to help your kids, out-of-the-box ideas are welcomed," Caele says. "It's finding that little glimmer that works for your kid."

But for Caele and Rick, finding the right pet required an almost endless animal audition. Thanks to allergies, furry animals were out. Fish? Not so social. Turtles were boring (sorry, any turtles with personality out there). And arachnids, well… who cares if they're social if they're also just plain creepy?

Chickens? Really?

Checking out the chickens

Photo credit: Jeremy Wallace

Throughout their parade of pets on probation, Caele and Rick would chuckle at stories from church friends who insisted their eight chickens were a wonderful addition to their family; the kids absolutely loved them.

"I would laugh and say it was absurd," Caele recalls. Then the Gambs visited the chicken family. "The kids were walking around and the chickens were following them," Caele says. "It was sweet and I thought, 'Maybe this isn't crazy.'"

In fact, "When socialized and supervised properly, specific animals, including chickens, can offer a wide range of therapeutic benefits to children and adolescents with autism as well as conditions including anxiety, depression and attachment issues," according to Modern Farmer.

Alzheimer's patients see benefits, too

This concept is taking flight nationwide. More than 3,000 Animal Assisted Interaction Programs exist across the country, "designed to help humans heal and create a natural relationship with animals while simultaneously strengthening their own social and emotional skills," reports Inhabitots.com.

Designed to help humans heal and create a natural relationship with animals while simultaneously strengthening their own social and emotional skills.

The Boston Globe has reported on the therapeutic effect of chickens on residents of Life Care Center, a nursing home in Littleton, Massachusetts, whose patients often have memory loss, dementia or Alzheimer's.

When Ellen Levinson, executive director of Life Care Center, attended one of Terry Golson's workshops (her website is hencam.com), she instantly thought about how her patients might embrace chickens and, in turn, how the chickens might truly help them.

"It's a way of connecting generations," director of the facility's memory support unit, Erica Labb, told the Globe. "Nursing homes can be scary places for young children. People sometimes don't know how to visit. The animals provide something for everyone to watch together."

How chickens assist people with ASD

For individuals with an ASD or Asperger's syndrome (a form of autism), chicken therapy may be a surprising but effective breakthrough.

"An autistic or Asperger's individual inherently needs to be assisted away from over fixation on the inner self," explains Pet.org.au, which provides support services for "autistic children and parents to find the 'perfect' companion animal."

"This encouragement to outward awareness and not to fear it can be found in the antics and curious jerky head motions that catch the eye made by all chickens," Pet.org.au says. "It is so captivating and funny…"

Ethan holding chicken

"Chickens, as with most pets, will coax a special needs child to innately accept that there is fascinating 'chaos' in life and that unpredictable things will occur with fun result."

Action without ruffling feathers

For Caele, seeing the children so enamored by chickens was all the reassurance she needed to begin pecking further. "I started researching [chickens], what great pets they make, how easy they are to take care of, how to keep them in an urban environment, and different ways to do it without making your neighbors crazy," she says.

The Gambs gauged neighbors' feelings on the issue (all gave a thumbs up) and presented their case to the Home Owners Association. In no time, they had all the approvals, support and inspiration they needed to begin the big bird build, and in no time, their chosen chicks landed on the door step, ready to move in.

Photo credit: Caele Gambs

Cluckingham Palace open to roost-ers

Today, three chickens happily roost in the family's back yard, inhabitants of a beautiful coop crowned "Cluckingham Palace" by Ethan and his brother, Rowan. The three princesses — Elizabeth, Charlotte and Sophia Poulet-Gambs — enjoy a shaded, peaceful coexistence inside the safety of Caele's coop.

Coop under construction

Photo credit: Caele Gambs

Queen walking down

Phase I includes an automatic chicken door, which means the chickens can rise at sunlight and venture into the larger "living room" portion of their palace without requiring any human to stagger out at dawn and let them out manually. Phase II will take an environmental approach, adding rain gutters to the coop so they can catch rainwater for use in their beautifully landscaped yard.

The coop also includes a handy contraption that will give the chickens a safe and warm nest area to lay their eggs. Chicken therapy has its perks: fresh farm eggs, minus the whole farm.

The family is just starting out on this chicken therapy adventure and isn't ready to report life-changing news just yet. But paltry early returns on their new poultry friends don't mean chicken therapy won't make a difference to Ethan. Time will tell, and in the meantime, as most royalty do, Elizabeth, Charlotte and Sophia spend their time pecking and appear relatively unruffled when guests stop by.

Photo credit: Jeremy Wallace

Lay your groundwork

Thinking of trying chicken therapy? The Gambs family recommends this starter checklist:

  • Check to see if your city requires a permit
  • Check all local ordinances (e.g., roosters are prohibited in the Gambs family's city) 

Caele's coop tips

  • Visit backyardchickens.com. This site is all chicken, all the time. (Complete with friendly, active forums.)
  • Refer to "Dr. Google" daily. "First, Google 'how to frame chicken coop,' then do it. Then Google 'how to build roofing truss,' then do it." And so forth.

How to choose your chickens

  • MyPetChicken.com provides a Pick My Chicken Calculator that asks for the characteristics of your desired chicken (e.g., does quiet matter? How often do you want eggs?), then lays (sorry) a list of breeds that meet your requirements.

More about children and autism

Autism tips: How to avoid overstimulation at birthday parties
Attempted murder of teen with autism should ignite fury, change
Why I won't apologize for my child

Topics: