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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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Since that grim prognosis, she has become a professor of animal science at Colorado State University. Grandin also speaks around the world on both autism and cattle handling, which she helped revolutionize as a livestock-handling equipment designer.

Meeting Grandin gave Alair the push to publish. Grandin even gave it an endorsement.

"Alair took one of her project books to the conference because she had read Temple's books," Sharon says. "Alair signed it and gave it to Temple. At (the conference's) lunch, Temple held it up and said, 'I would endorse a book like this.'"

And Grandin did just that.

More family difficulties

But life hasn't been easy for the Bergmans.

In 2010, they were evicted from their home in Waterford. Last year, they had to leave their farm a few miles from where they're currently renting in Ortonville because their landlord liquidated the property for various reasons. In another two months, they'll have to find another place to live. The family they're renting from will be returning from Australia.

And if all this wasn't hard enough, mom was diagnosed in 2010 with stage 3 breast cancer. She underwent chemotherapy and eventually had a modified radical mastectomy. She's currently in remission.

"This kid shines in crisis," Sharon says. "We got to Oakland County Fair in 2010 and she wins overall county championship for the second time … right after our major crisis."

Alair hopes to sell enough copies of the book to buy her family a new farm.

Help from 4-H

Besides writing the book, she says her biggest triumphs come from getting rid of a lot of the autistic traits that held her back. Her stubbornness and processing concepts have become much better since working with her animals.

"But I still struggle with it," she says. "I still have struggles getting things done and persevering."

Involvement with the 4-H Youth Development Organization, which she joined at 9 years old, helps her persevere. The organization's motto –"Head, Heart, Hands and Health" – connected with the family.

Both Alair and her mom credit the club with helping them through autism. The idea of working with animals attracted the family – Alair's 14-year-old brother, Robbie, also has autism and other learning disabilities. He prefers goats, which helps him out, too. He recently became involved with chickens.

The first year Alair joined 4-H, she was a "newbie." She didn't know you had to have a purebred chicken, not a mix of different breeds. She wasn't very good at other intricacies, she says, but it was still a good experience.

"I hadn't had the right resources," she says. "But, in the last few years, I have given other 'first years' the right resources, so they can do a better job than I did."

The Bergmans are thankful for the national organization's saving graces. If it wasn't for 4-H, mom says her daughter might not have progressed. The club helped the formerly non-social girl learn good social skills and break out of her introverted personality.

"It helped me be out with the community and help it," Alair says. "At 15, I had already become something of a mentor to the younger generation of poultry, teaching kids about chickens. I still do that."

She's been invited to different workshops to talk about poultry. At the Oakland County 4-H Poultry Club, she teaches others about showmanship and how to raise chickens. Poultry farming has been good to her. She's been named Poultry Queen at the Oakland Country Fair and come in first place in showmanship and other categories more than a few times.

Old to new | New to old
Mar 28, 2013 11:35 am
 Posted by  Molly MacDonald

Sharon Bergman is a HERO Mom. She has continually advocated for her children, while undergoing her own physical health issues. I applaud Sharon and Alair and trust that our community will be inspired by their journey so, that they will be able to continue to educate and give.

Jul 30, 2013 05:34 pm
 Posted by  Sallyintucson

I'm not in the least bit surprised that animals of any kind can and do calm (people who are) autistic. People with this disorder have senses that are on major overdrive - that's why they don't handle crowds, TVs and other things very well. Turn off the electrical what nots and put them with an animal and you'll see a big change. I've seen this time and time again. Why people find it so "amazing" is beyond me.

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