Chickens and Autism: How 'Goldie' Helps a Michigan Teen
With the help of a feathered friend, Alair Bergman of Ortonville, Mich. has overcome autism symptoms, written a book and plans for a bright future
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Alair Bergman's best friend is calm, patient and an excellent listener. Her pal doesn't judge and is there whenever needed.
But there's one catch: Alair's confidant is a chicken.
Since 2006, Goldie, along with dozens of other chickens, roosters and a few ducks, have helped the 17-year-old cope with autism. Alair was born with multiple challenges and learning disabilities, also including obsessive compulsive disorder, sensory integration dysfunction and auditory processing disorder.
"Some people would just verbally tell me to calm down, and they don't show me any way how," says Alair, who lives in Ortonville. "It's like telling somebody to build a rocket, but no blueprint or hands-on help."
Connection with chickens
But a miracle happened in Alair's life when she found an unusual talent in working with birds. A trip to Greenfield Village as a child helped open the window to the power of animals. She took to them – especially the chickens, and they to her. It was a revelation.
"When she was outside and with animals, she was calmer," says Alair's mom, Sharon. "We now had something to focus on. She had periods of time she was happy. And when she got into those periods where it was dark or hard, reacting to everything in the world and having tantrums and meltdowns, she could go and sit with Goldie. She would immediately calm down."
In 2006, Alair purchased a 5-month-old Goldie for $8. The name came easy, she says, due to the hen's golden feathers with white and black spots. The pattern is called a millefleur, which means "a thousand flowers." Goldie's breed is a Belgian Bearded d'Uccle.
The two were inseparable. They talked and talked. They watched TV together, Goldie sitting on Alair's shoulders. They played in the yard. The hen became a true best friend.
For Alair, poultry has a variety of benefits. The birds are smaller and more controllable than other livestock, she says. And they're hypoallergenic (she's allergic to anything with fur). By nature, chickens are skittish. This aspect actually helps her.
"You have to have a calm attitude," she says. "I was always a very hyper and loud little kid. Chickens taught me to be more quiet and calm around them, so they wouldn't be so skittish."
Meeting Temple Grandin
Goldie's influence prompted Alair to put her experiences with autism on paper. At the age of 12, with mom's help, she penned her first book, titled, My Best Friend Goldie. The book wasn't officially released until last year and came about with support from a famous autism advocate.
In 2010, mom and daughter met Dr. Temple Grandin at Metro Parent's Living With Autism Workshop. Grandin, a prominent author and speaker on autism, didn't talk until she was 3 1/2, communicating her frustration instead by screaming, peeping and humming. In 1950, Grandin was diagnosed with autism – and her parents were told she should be institutionalized.