Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Lambs bring Washington state autistic boy out of his shell

From Yakima Herald-Republic in Washington:

As soon as he gets home from school, 10-year-old Benjamin Lunning (pictured) heads straight for his lambs.

He brings Lillybell and Tiana into a pen to protect them from coyotes. He gives them fresh food and water, and he affectionately calls them by name when they compete for his attention.

"They are my daughters," said Benjamin, who lives in Terrace Heights. "They don't have any fathers, except for me."

Using animals to teach children responsibility is nothing new. But for Lunning, an autistic boy who has difficulty communicating and socializing, the daily chores take on added significance.

The lambs, his parents say, have brought Benjamin out of his shell in a way nothing else ever did.

"These lambs are always on his mind," said Kimberly Lunning, Benjamin's mother. "For an autistic child, that kind of attachment, that kind of bond, is rare. I have to use his connections in life to teach him life skills."

Lillybell first came into Benjamin's life last March, when a friend of the family's purchased her at an auction. The lamb stayed with its original owner for a few weeks, but was later given to Benjamin as a gift.

"From the moment he touched that lamb, he loved that lamb," Kimberly said. "Lillybell follows him everywhere."

Kimberly doesn't know why her son became so focused on Lillybell. The Lunnings have dogs and cows, pigs and cats. But none of them made much of an impression on Benjamin. This lamb was different.

"Ben fell in love," she said. "She was so soft and she wasn't hyper. That was the connection."

Having been weaned too early, Lillybell came close to death during her first few weeks in the Lunning household. But Benjamin kept her in his bedroom, wrapped her in a blanket and fed her with a syringe.

Soon, the lamb regained her health. And with that recovery came the boot to her new, outdoor home. To keep Lillybell company, Kimberly and her husband Pat Lunning -- the adoptive father of Benjamin and Benjamin's 8-year-old brother, Davis -- bought another lamb in April.

This lamb didn't have deformed legs like Lillybell and would be a perfect show lamb for the West Valley Fair. Benjamin named her Tiana after a character in "The Princess and the Frog."

"Both lambs follow him around everywhere. They wouldn't do that with anyone else," Pat said.

Ordinarily, livestock shown at the West Valley Fair in July is sold for slaughter. But Kimberly and Pat knew this wasn't an option for Benjamin. They had to be creative.

So they solicited the help of Frank's Tire and Bob Hall Auto Dealerships, who promised to bid on Tiana but return her to Benjamin -- alive and intact.

"As a mom, I didn't know what to do if we didn't get this lamb," Kimberly said, admitting she was afraid someone else would buy it. "We wanted Benjamin to have the experience of showing the lamb, but it would not be good if Tiana did not come home."

Luckily, the showing went well. Benjamin walked his lamb around the arena at the Wiley City Rodeo Grounds and answered the judge's questions. There were no meltdowns, Kimberly said.

"We all kind of push Ben," she said, noting that her extended family is her support system. "We don't let his autism dictate his experiences. We just help him push through."

From the moment Kimberly gave birth to Benjamin, she said she had to be his advocate.

He weighed only 2 pounds, 13 ounces at birth, 12 weeks ahead of schedule. He didn't learn to walk until he was 18 months old, and he became potty trained when he was almost 4.

At about this same time, Benjamin was diagnosed with autism, a disorder that affects the brain's normal development of social and communication skills.

Like many high-functioning people with this disorder, Benjamin is distressed when routines are changed. He avoids eye contact with people, and he prefers to spend time alone. Those with more severe autism are usually nonverbal, unengaged and unable to perform well on standard diagnosis tests.

For Kimberly, her son's diagnosis was not an excuse for his shortcomings. Instead, she knew he'd need more guidance to reach his full potential.

"He doesn't get to be rude because he has difficulty learning social skills," she said. "I want Ben to have an independent life as much as possible."

Murline Davis, for one, has seen how Benjamin has benefited from Kimberly's parenting. As Benjamin's grandmother, she said she knows he didn't feel connected to anything until he met the lambs.

From that time on, he was taken out of his inner world and began thinking of others. And when he showed Tiana at the West Valley Fair, he learned he could handle crowds. That makes Davis believe anything is possible.

"He knows that he can handle other worlds," Kimberly said. "He doesn't have to do it all at once, but he knows he can handle something for a few minutes. We all want for him to be able to live a normal life."

With the $400 Benjamin made from the fair last summer, he's paying for his lambs' feed and general upkeep. If all goes as planned, both Tiana and Lillybell will give birth in February and at least one of those lambs will be sold at next year's fair.

This time, Pat and Kimberly are telling Benjamin that the new lamb he shows will not be returning home.

Kimberly said she gains strength from success stories like Temple Grandin, a high-functioning autistic who is a doctor of animal science, a professor at Colorado State University and a best-selling author. The story of her life was recently made into an HBO movie starring Claire Danes.

If Grandin can overcome the odds to accomplish so much, Kimberly believes there's nothing that can prevent her son from doing the same.

"Each child is different," she said. "Sometimes you just have to find the most unconventional things and run with it."