Kids and chickens. They just seem to go together - like eggs and bacon. Many of us can tell stories about growing up and either having chickens at home or visiting a favorite relative's farm and interacting with chickens there. Helping with chores around the chicken coop made many special memories of a time when things were simpler - when we took care of ourselves and each other by taking good care of the gardens and farm animals that fed us. Chickens are the ideal 4-H project for kids. They don't take up much space so even "town kids" can participate, but they do require the 4-H'er to be diligent about care and record keeping in the same way they'd have to care for and document the raising of a prize winning steer.
There are other kids, however, for whom those activities are tougher, yet who reap boundless benefits from those simple little creatures. Kids with disabilities, large and small, can learn and engage with chickens far easier than with larger animals. I know this because I have two very special disabled grandkids, and they absolutely love being able to be around the chickens. The chickens are small, so the girls aren't intimidated by animals that are bigger and stronger.
Katie is mildly autistic, and wise beyond her years. Our grandson, Evan, lives two blocks down and he and Katie are more like brother and sister than cousins While Katie was thrilled with the prospect of chickens in Gramma's back yard, Evan was non-committal, as you can plainly see in the photos toward the bottom of this article. They got their heads together and decided that Katie's 2 year old sister Kendra should be allowed to see the chicks first. But Kendra had been born with Spina Bifida and was just about done with her latest series of casts on her legs. She was facing surgery the following week and being new to chickens myself, not to mention being a card carrying germaphobe, I wasn't sure what the doctors might say about her being in close proximity to the chicks at that point. A call to the nurse was discouraging, as she advised us to keep Kendra away from the chicks and any bacteria they might shed. However, Kendra's doctor called us back and told us to "let that baby see and touch those chicks". He said that there was no danger to Kendra from a surgical aspect and she was going to hear so many "no's" in her life that we needed to give her as many "yeses" as possible. So Kendra got to see and touch the chicks first after all. And she's still seeing and touching.
Our little princess in her first set of wheels at 9 months old.
We put a cover on the basket so they wouldn't scare her. .
Grampa held a chick so she could touch. Kendra was 2 here.
And here she is at 4, in the shirt a special BYC friend sent her.
For kids like Kendra who will spend much of their lives in a wheelchair or needing assistance to walk:Make it fun for yourself and your child. Kendra doesn't interact much with the chickens yet, but she's starting to. Her second wheelchair, like the first one, didn't have the chrome outer wheel for her to push. She had to move the chair by turning the tires, which meant that whatever was on the tires was transferred to her hands. Yuck! Needless to say her time out in the yard, coop and run was limited. Her latest chair does have the chrome outer wheel, so she goes out with us more now when the chickens are having their free range time. She loves that! We plan to build a ramp from the deck to the sidewalk, and in the plan is an extension that will allow her to wheel herself out to the coop and run when she gets older. It'll be easier for her to push the chair on that than on the grass. It'll also be easier to clean off chicken deposits on a ramp than try to keep the grass clean! For right now we put the egg basket on her lap and then she gets to hold the basket while we put the eggs into it. Then she cradles it very carefully while we push her back up to the house, take her out of the chair, and bring her and the eggs in. She gets to put them in the cartons as well and she's learning to count them, which makes her feel like such a big shot! She also likes it when Grampa picks up one of the calmer chickens and lets her give the bird a pet or two. She's not ready to hold one yet, but that day is coming.
When any of us take our special kids around any animal, it's our responsibility to see to it that they are never scared. No matter the source or severity of the disability, those of us who care for these kids day in and day out just know when enough is enough because we learn to read them so well. Kendra is still mostly non-communicative at this point. Developmentally she's at about 16 to 18 months and just beginning to talk. She knows the names of things, can count and knows her letters, but she can't communicate emotions or wants verbally. We know from her expression and animation when she's enjoying herself, when she's had enough, and when we can push her boundaries just a little bit further. And here is where our kids' medical conditions work in our favor. For the most part, even if they get excited and begin to flap their arms, these children remain in one place. Exposing the chickens to the chair regularly helps the birds remain calm as well. Our chickens putter around and scratch the ground right at Kendra's feet. She gets excited and flaps her arms, but they have learned that they will not be persued or harrassed in any way, and just that simple interchange of trust allows them to feel free to get very close to her. It also helps that she's learning to sit patiently in her chair and toss out a few treats. You may notice that I have very few photos of Kendra outside with the chickens. The reason for that is simple. I can't take pictures and react as fast as I'd need to if something happened. Kendra is my focus, totally, so the camera phone just stays in the house. As she gets better out there I'll be snapping right and left, you can believe that! But we have time for that. It's very important to remember that if the kids get spooked or begin to act restless, it's time to call it a day and try again another time.
We have to be creative without being negative when it comes to exposing physically impaired kids to new experiences. Ken and I tried different gloves to put on Kendra's hands so she could wheel herself around out there without getting chicken poop on her hands.. Unfortunately she would not keep them on, and one afternoon she took great delight in watching one of the hens grab her discarded glove and run away with it. Naturally all of the other chickens had to run after her, and little Kendra sat in her chair laughing so hard at their antics that she had tears running down her face. Then, of course, she had to take the second one off and toss it too. Who would have thought? A kid in a wheelchair playing fetch with a bunch of chickens! Now there's a Kodak moment! And there's a confidence building moment. Kendra couldn't have verbalized what had happened, but she experienced the joy of living it, of understanding that one of her actions resulted in reactions on the part of something or someone else. That's a lesson she'll tuck back into her little mind and build upon, adding it to the catalog of what makes her unique and special. We finally settled on putting a damp, soapy dishtowel in a plastic grocery bag and hanging it on the back of her chair for quick cleanups. Gloves might work for some, but not for Kendra. And yes, we could have picked up the first glove and not permitted her to throw the second. But why?
Too often our special kids are sitting just on the sidelines, watching but not being able to participate in events around them. I wish we'd built the coop doors wider and had a wheelchair and walker friendly ramp. If we'd have built the coop with the Kendra's eventual maturity in mind we'd have taken that into account. So if you are just getting your setup ready, or if you're ready to revamp, consider a few things to involve your disabled child. Make that door wider. Put in a ramp. Make feeders and feed bins accessible so they can help with chores. And put in nests that can be accessed from outside the coop with a small basket hung on a hook right next to the access door. Wheelchairs, walkers or braces don't mean that children can't learn to gather eggs and bring them in. A few might be broken in the learning process. So what? Aren't there more where that one or two came from? And there's nothing these kids can get on them that won't come off with soap and water. So let them help, and set things up to make the learning and the doing process easier for them. When they master a job, make it a little harder and see if they can problem solve and adjust. If they can, keep going and challenge them a little more. If they don't, drop back to the last place where they did well and stay there a while longer, without comment or judgement. Plan on your chores taking more time when you have such amazing "help". If your child has issues with spasticity and/or contractures, as is often the case with Cerebral Palsy or traumatic brain injury, you can still take him/her out there and hold a chicken up close. Take that little hand and let that child feel the warmth and the feathers. Rig a way for them to carry a basket on their laps and let them carry the eggs. Their minds work just fine, and they feel all the things other kids do - joy, fear, and curiosity. So what if you have to wash him/her up when you go back inside the house? It'll be worth it, I promise!
We do everything we can to make sure that Kendra is safe with the chickens. We have a strict rule around here that turned out to be painful for me to implement, and that rule is that we will not have a single chicken out there that we don't trust 100% around the kids, most especially around Kendra. That meant that following a single attack on me, our very special rooster Scout was culled. I will never risk having the kids suffer a single scratch, nor go through a frighting incident, around the chickens. Period. There is no gray here. Kendra may be more mobile around the coop with her new chair, but she would never be able to get away if a hen or rooster was to come after her. While the plan is to push her just a little past her limits each time, the final goal is just to make her comfortable and to know she's an important part of our day-to-day routine. With any child around our chickens, we have to be ever watchful and prepared to act immediately. That is especially true when the child cannot act to protect him/herself.
Sanitation is another place where corners can't be cut when it comes to these special little ones. Did you ever wonder if kids who are wheelchair restricted ever get out of them, or are they just put in them in the morning to remain there until time for bed? Yes, some have to be. In our case, however, the answer is a resounding "NO". Kendra spends much of her time on the floor at Gramma's house because our home is too small to accommodate her in the chair. So for the most part she crawls from place to place, or we take her hands and practice her walking. At 4, she is just now learning to walk and she spends as much time falling on her hiney as a one year old taking first steps. But crawling is faster. That means that whatever is on the floor is on her hands. We all wear coop shoes out to do chores. We change into and out of them on the deck, and those shoes never cross the threshold into the house. Likewise shoes worn regularly are never worn to go into the coop or run. It helps to have coop shoes that just slip on. Hands are washed immediately upon coming into the house. Like many kids with special needs, Kendra's immune system isn't the strongest. So protect, protect, protect from any possible contamination. We recently installed a hanging container with sanitizing wipes right by the door. We use them to wipe down the wheels and chrome outer wheels on her chair after she's visited the chickens. To some that might seem like overkill. So be it.
And for kids like Katie, who have any form of autism, or others with ADD, ADHD, etc:
We didn't know what was going on with Katie. We just knew she was different. She didn't show any desire to crawl, or walk, and didn't usually respond appropriately when we tried to interact with her. She spoke very little. She very rarely looked at us, and she was a "flapper", repeating the same flapping motions with her arms and legs. But we lucked out and found Children's Resource Center, and they immediately set up different therapies and appointments before Katie was 14 months old, well before we even had a definitive diagnosis of autism. We all worked with her and as of this school year, at the age of 9, she has "graduated" from any and all forms of special ed and assistance. But that doesn't mean that we can stop giving her extra help and enthusiastic reinforcement for appropriate behaviors.
If we had known what a positive affect the chickens would have had on her we would have started raising them years ago and saved everybody a lot of worry! Living across the street like she does, she is a constant visitor. Her fear of crossing the street by herself was finally eliminated last spring by knowing that the chicks, and later the grown up chickens, waited for her at the end of that walk. She went from observer and flapper, (she still flaps her arms when she's overexcited) to helper, to full time chicken caregiver, all in the space of a few months. Her self confidence and self esteem bloomed.
Katie and Evan met the chicks right after Kendra did.
Katie coming in after finishing her chicken chores for the evening.
When Katie's favorite chicken went broody, we ordered eggs for her.
After weeks of waiting, Katie saw her chick, Scout, for the first time.
Kids with autism, ADD, and ADHD see the world differently than we do. Everything is overstimulating, either in a good way or a bad way. And each child reacts differently to that over-stimulation. My son, who is Katie's father, was diagnosed with ADHD years ago so I'm familiar with working with both. He handled overload by acting out, and it could get ugly at our house and at school very quickly. We learned what worked with him the hard way. With Katie's autism, she would either pull her arms in tightly to her sides and shake or flap her arms wildly. Much of that behavior had been resolved with her therapy sessions, either at home, at Gramma and Grampa's, or at school, but it is still present to some degree. She learned very quickly, however, that chickens don't take to two-legged humans flapping their arms very well, and instead of being able to approach them she'd manage to scare them off. She had to be made aware that she was even doing it first in order to control it. To accomplish that control, we gave her an immediate alternative behavior. We told her if she starts to flap she should drop her arms loosely, turn her back on the chickens and walk away quietly toward the scratch bucket. Our always greedy "therapy chickens" would turn and follow her, which tickled her to no end. She learned that by controlling herself, she could control part of her environment, and for kids with autism that's huge! With ADD or ADHD, the over-stimulation tends to result in behaviors like yelling out, jumping up and down in excitement, and simply not being able to contain themselves and be still. Their little minds are going a hundred miles an hour and their bodies are just trying to keep up. It's one thing to gently remind them to take a deep breath and calm themselves, it's quite another for them to see immediately that calming themselves down and moving more purposefully has the same effect on the chickens. The birds become calmer. So simply saying, "Don't scare the chickens." is nowhere near as effective as saying, "Can you help me calm the chickens down?" That's an instant reminder for them without resorting to an order that is almost impossible to follow because it's so vague. The same technique - redirection - that works so well for Katie is what we had learned to do for her dad. And if it doesn't work, simply saying, "I think you've done well for today. I can finish up here." , again without further comment or judgement, will either encourage them to regroup enough to finish helping or go inside and relax for a bit, willing to try again next time.
Very often kids with autism don't show much empathy for others. They can't. The definition of autism should be self-absorbtion. When Katie was out with us we'd point to a chicken and say, "Does she look happy or does she look sad?" Katie would observe for a moment then make a decision one way or the other. From there it was easy to push her forward another step. "Well, what do you think we should do to make (or keep) her happy?" She learned to watch the chickens, especially Agatha (her favorite) and make decisions accordingly. "They look hungry, Gramma." followed by trip to the food bin. "I think they need a time-out" was handled by her herding them back to the coop for the night. That empathy translates into everyday life. We actually started that when she was about 3 with her very own tomato plants in a planter, and it translated very easily to the chickens. Last fall Katie came to me wanting to make a quilt for Kendra. She reminded me that Kendra has very little nerve function in her feet and legs, and that she can be cold before she actually feels the cold. So she wanted to make a quilt that would fit in Kendra's car seat and wheelchair. Empathy. Looking at the needs of another creature and doing what you can to meet their needs. I'd like to say that we taught her that, but she learned it more from the chickens than from us. And it translates into a young lady who takes pride in doing her chores because she knows she is ensuring that the chickens in her care have all they need to be comfortable and healthy.
Start slowly. Take younger kids out to the coop and let them name the colors of the chickens. Encourage them to pick out a favorite and let that chicken be "theirs". Let them do a head count when the chickens are on the roost to make sure none were forgotten before lock-up. Let them gather eggs. Ask them questions and keep them engaged in the process from feeding to housing. Ask their opinions, and take their suggestions seriously. Those are things we can do with any of our young kids growing up around chickens. But the biggest gift we can give kids who are different is the same interaction we give kids who do not battle autism, ADHD and/or ADD in their everyday lives. Chickens can be a focal point to learn about the pecking order. That helped Katie understand better than anything else why some kids pick on her for her autism, why some are kind, and why some don't notice her one way or the other. That was a real eye opener for her, and her coping-with-peers skills improved almost immediately. Now she grins and says she likes being somewhere in the middle of the pecking order at school. Chicken chores are not as intimidating to struggling kids as caring for larger animals with more needs would be, and that gives them the thrill of a success they've earned themselves. Success breeds more desire for success.
Having chores means being part of the family unit. All kids need them. They thrive on them. But for kids with any of the limits we are discussing here it is critical that they learn they can contribute to the well being of the family just as well as everyone else in the family's circle. Kids with these issues do best when everything is done in steps, the same way every time. Katie started by having a few chores she did regularly, and as she was ready the number of things she was asked to do increased. All of this was done under our supervision, of course, but mostly we'd set a task for her and then observe. We noticed right away that if she deviated from the regular routine she was formulating, she got flustered and then something got left out. When that would happen we would take her back to where she'd been successful and let her build on that again. Now we can leave town and Katie is in complete charge of the coop, the run, and the chickens. The first time we left we provided her with a simple checklist. I can't even tell you where that list is now. Watching her is like watching a well-oiled clock. She grabs the egg basket out of the house and takes it out to the deck with her while she puts on her coop shoes. She tosses a little scratch in the run and when the chickens are all in there she shuts the pop door so she can work in the coop without worrying about escapees. She gathers any eggs, always beginning and ending with the same nest. She cleans the poop board, again, always working from the right side of it to the left. When that's done she sets the egg basket right by the door and she turns her attention to checking the supply of food and water in the run. Again she opens the pop door for the girls. She repeats the process with the scratch and closes the pop door when all the chickens have moved to the coop. If containers need to be topped off, she does that in the same way every single time - food first, then water. She makes sure all the latches are shut on the people doors and opens the pop door for the last time. Then she brings her egg basket up to the deck, changes her shoes, brings the eggs in, marks the date on top of each one with a pencil, cartons them, and puts them in the refrigerator. A final hand scrubbing and she heads for home. No deviation. No left out steps, and it's all so automatic she barely thinks about it. I may have gotten the order of the steps wrong, but she doesn't - ever. And whether I relayed them out of order or not, every step is done. That routine is critical for kids with over-stimulation difficulties - it puts them in total charge of their environment and ensures that no task is forgotten.
The fear factor can be a huge obstacle to overcome in all kids, but especially those with physical and/or emotional disabilities. There is only one answer to that - patience. Don't push. In some cases they never will overcome that fear, and they need to know that it's okay - that you won't love them any less if they never take to the chickens. Chickens squawk, bicker, flap, run and fly, and to a child who has little control over much of their lives it's just another example of something they can't deal with. It's not a failure - it's self preservation and we do them a huge disservice by not acknowledging that and letting them find their own time and way to cope with it. Some never will. Some will get over the terror but always be nervous and apprehensive. And some, like Kendra and Katie, will dive in with both feet and love every minute of it. Once long ago I made the mistake of telling Katie when she freaked out over a spider, "Well, he's more afraid of you than you are of him," She responded, "Then that spider must be scared out of his spider mind!" Your child is unique. He/she is someone to be protected, but not to be wrapped in a plastic bubble. Let them experience as much as they can handle, when they are ready to handle it. You, your child, and your chickens will all come out the winners.
I had to edit this article to include something brand new that has just happened here for Kendra, something that could only have happened because of the very things I have shared in this article! Friday, 10/15/15, was physical therapy day with Cindi. Cindi has been part of our family for years, beginning with Katie's very first appointment. On nice days we take Kendra out to practice in her walker and this day started out much like every other. We were coming back to the house along the sidewalk in front of the house, Kendra in her walker and Cindi and I on either side of her, when Kendra suddenly pointed at the chicken coop and said, "Chickens, chickens!" Her walker is useless for her on the grass, so when we reached the end of the sidewalk Cindi took both of her hands and we walked her to the chicken run. It was the first time she had ever been there without being in her chair! She let go of Cindi's hands and got to actually touch the run and get right up close to the chickens. They "visited" for quite sometime, Kendra flapping her arms and saying some of her few words and the birds chattering back. The only physical support Kendra had was her braces and Cindi holding on to the belt of them. I ran in to get my iPad and the egg basket. Because Kendra had been around the chickens so much in her chair, the birds weren't at all bothered by her flapping arms like they are when Katie forgets and flaps. And when the chickens were clucking and jumping up to and down from the roosts, Kendra didn't panic either! That careful and regular early interaction made all of the difference! You can't buy confidence - it has to grow and that only happens if you have made your child's experiences out there positive ones.
With just the support of her physical therapist holding the belt of her braces, Kendra stood and visited with Gentle Ida, on the roost. It's all about confidence.
And then, wonder of wonders, the little girl who carried eggs on her lap while seated in her wheelchair carried her treasure to the house, walking and holding only one of Cindi's hands. If every single egg in that basket would have been smashed to bits, it still would have been so worth it!
"Gramma, can I have some more chickens?"
* I feel I must put a disclaimer in here. I am not a physical, occupational, or speech therapist, nor do I hold any degrees in early childhood development or health. What I am is a Gramma with remarkable grandkids, just like any other family! I was Katie's full time day care provider until she was 3 and part-time even up to now, and I have been Kendra's full time day care provider since she was born. Therapy sessions with the pros are done here at our house, and videotaped so the girls' mom can see what we've done, how we went about it, and how to continue it at home. So everything in this article is experience based, and much of it was learned through trial and error with a good dose of common sense tossed in.