I've never been one for hamsters.. cats and dogs yes, even guinea pigs and rabbits and I did threaten to wish for a gerbil if I couldn't have kitten as a child, but hamsters have always frightened me a little. This feeling didn't benefit from being forced to have a "class hamster" as an NQT - my parallel got the fish tank as pet interest in her class, I pulled the short straw which turned out to be a psychotic syrian hamster.
Our second son decided a few years back that hamsters - Russian Dwarf hamsters to be precise - were his alter ego. There wasn't much mileage in coveting a polar bear, and despite several years collecting the fake cuddly kind he moved on to hamsters. With some trepidation we gave in three years ago and bought him a hamster, and it has been one of the best decisions we have ever made.
Each little furry friend has brought out the best in H, helped him more in terms of emotional and social development than any person has. I even started writing a book "Even hamsters do PE" for children on the Autism Spectrum (and yes, that is copyrighted lol) after being totally amazed at the success our little furry friend has in persuading H to join in PE lessons. After all, hamsters climb and swing all day long, don't they?
But his current sidekick deserves the greatest accolade, having achieved the impossible. Lacking in empathy skills, patience and an understanding of time reward schemes have never worked with H. Why cooperate in the here and now for something on the horizon? A possible, a maybe, such concepts are meaningless to many with Autism. We've tried every sticker chart known to man over the years with little or no success.
Until now. It seems we were focussing on the wrong person - or creature. H wanted to stop his hamster biting when he picked her up from the cage - she is the friendliest little thing once held, but a big hand diving into her cage seems to bring out the territorial side in her. Of course to H (who speaks "hamster", of course) a star chart for a hamster is just as appropriate as one for a child. "Pudding" ("Christmas Pudding" actually, a Christmas gift with a penchant for sunflower seeds...) now has her very own star/sticker chart and H is rewarding her a sticker for every time he picks her up without getting bitten. The connection between effort and reward has suddenly "clicked" and to our amazement and delight H has suddenly seen the light. If his little furry friend can earn stickers and reap the rewards (note to self, stock up on the sunflower seeds) for persistent effort he wants to do it too. For the first time we have 100% "buy in" on a reward scheme - he cares, and understands, and it's working.
I hope the hamster keeps trying, we're definitely on to something here. But if not, I guess that's another point of learning - what happens when you stop cooperating? For now though, I am in awe of this tiny creature with her deep, black eyes and twitchy whiskers. She's achieved what we could not. Hamsters rock - forget puppets helping children with Autism, I'm sold on the pet idea. Especially little furry "Pokemon in disguise"! Who knows, maybe she can finish my book for me next?!