Robin Perry, who created the Animals Providing Emotional Support program with support of the Toledo Zoo, assists Leilani Gonzales, 7, of Toledo and Jackson Cochran, 10, as they meet guinea pigs.
TEMPERANCE -- Robin Perry, a teacher's aide at Temperance Road Elementary School, has been going to the apes this summer. Or rather, to the APES, as in Animals Providing Emotional Support, the program she created and runs at the Toledo Zoo.
Ms. Perry's students at Temperance Road Elementary have autism. She has long known how they can benefit emotionally from interacting with animals and has taken her own dog into the classroom.
She longed to put together a program that would make regular use of a wider range of animals, so a few years ago she wrote a proposal for the "APES Project," presented it to zoo officials, and was delighted when they gave her the go-ahead.
The program is in its second summer. Ms. Perry takes two autistic children, aged 3 to 8, for two days each week and introduces them to the animals in the zoo's Nature's Neighborhood, where children can experience animals close up.
"I love it," Ms. Perry said. "I wish it could be my full-time job. I get to do the two things I love to do most -- work with animals and kids."
The animals are mostly guinea pigs, pygmy goats, and small snakes, she continued. "One time we had an armadillo come in, and the kids were able to observe it walking around."
There is lots of close contact.
"The kids get to hold the guinea pigs and help care for them," she explained. "They make sure their food and water are ready, and they brush them."
The salutary effects of this kind of contact are soon apparent. "Their faces light up. They're so engrossed with the animals at the time," she explained.
Steve Oswanski, the manager of the children's zoo, said the program is accomplishing just what zoo officials wanted to do.
"We don't really serve many students within the autistic spectrum, and this is a great opportunity to meet with those students," he said. "With what we're trying to do, this is a perfect match. We've seen pretty good results. Robin keeps a file on each student and tailors her lessons to them."
Ms. Perry said each class lasts an hour and earns the child a "Certified APES Handler" certificate.
"We basically use the animals to teach the kids about empathy and help their feelings. A lot of times, the animals will have a calming effect and teach them responsibility. Research has shown that in families with children with autism, those children will have more rapport with the animals in the household than with the people in the home," she said.
In her classes, she said, she aims to take the child through four phases: initial exposure to the animals, engagement with them, interaction, and, finally, a relationship. She said the children also enjoy walking around the zoo and looking at the larger animals.
Ms. Perry, who lives in Temperance with her husband and three children, said she'll stay with the program in subsequent summers.
"It's making a difference," she said.