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Five Lessons My Autistic Daughter is Learning Through Having a Tropical Fish Tank

Miriam Gwynne by Miriam Gwynne Additional Needs

Miriam Gwynne

Miriam Gwynne

Full time mum and carer for two truly wonderful autistic twins. I love reading, writing, walking, swimming and encouraging others. Don’t struggle a...

The advice ranged from what therapies to do, what support groups I should attend, how I should alter her diet now she has autism and surprisingly a lot of people suddenly suggested we should get her a pet.

That last one was never our immediate priority but I let it sit there buried in the back of my mind and often mulled it over.

When I was a child my family had a dog, and a cat and I even remember us having some goldfish until my dad accidentally killed them.

Prior to having children my husband and myself had several dogs whom we loved very much.

By the time the children were a year old both had passed away and in the business of raising twins we never felt it would be right to add another pet into the mix.

This all changed fairly recently when my husband was diagnosed with depression and he was advised to take up a hobby.

As we sat and talked about previous things he had enjoyed and spoke about the past, we both remembered the joy we once had early on in our marriage when we kept tropical fish.

All of a sudden my mind jumped once again to the thought of pets helping my daughter.

We decided the best place for a fish tank might be our daughter's bedroom.

And so it began.

We put the suggestion to her and showed her images on Google.

We visited aquariums and pet shops and talked about all that was involved.

We bought the tank, the filter and gravel.

And this is when her first lesson in life started.

1. Sometimes, in life, we can't hurry things.

Water takes time to settle.

We had to test the levels of different chemicals and allow the tank to ''mature" before rushing out to add ornaments and fish.

There are areas of development that my daughter struggles with having autism and I talked to her about how sometimes everything does need to be, 'just right', before she can master skills her peers take for granted like bike riding, scoring goals, difficult spelling words and so on.

When she recently got a word wrong in a spelling test instead of becoming very upset she said she just needed a little more time, like her fish tank, to be perfect.

2. Being around the right people is so important.

When we finally got around to adding the all important fish we talked about how some types of wish work well together and some don't.

Some fish need others for company and some are fine on their own.

A good mix is vital for a healthy tank just like a good mix of people helps us all thrive.

As a child who really struggles socially this helped her understand that she doesn't need to like everyone in her class but she can be around them without being overly anxious.

She likes one thing, others like something else just like some fish like exploring while others prefer the bottom of the tank.

Seeing it in real life in her tank really helped her understand.

3. Eating the same stuff is OK but we must eat regularly.

My daughter has major issues with food.

She has a pretty typical autism diet of mainly beige items so the fact her fish predominantly ate the same flakes day in and day out helped her understand that sometimes this is OK.

However, she would also easily go days without eating every time anything stressed her.

By explaining that her fish had to be fed twice a day and forming a routine for this she also established her own eating routine alongside them which has helped us in getting her up to an acceptable weight when before she kept losing weight.

4. Things can look good but that does not mean all is OK.

Sometimes we would look at her tank and she would remark how clean it was and how beautiful the fish were but yet when we tested the water it was clear the tank needed a water change or a little tweaking.

Sometimes difficulties are not noticeable to others but that does not mean they don't exist.

My smart little girl immediately worked out this was the same with her autism.

People look at her as beautiful and smart (which she is) and don't always see her anxiety until it is too late.

5. Being different is beautiful.

We have a right mix of fish now including mollies, sword tails, neon tetras, Angel fish, weather loach and guppies and each brings colour, peace, adventure, tranquillity and enjoyment that simply having a tank full of the same breed would not bring.

Variety helps brighten it and keep it clean and each fish is unique in it's own way.

None of the fish strive in any way to be like another one and each is confident in it's own right; exactly the way I want my daughter to be.

Some love dogs, others love cats.

We are gaining so much just from having a simple tank of fish.

They say pets are good for children with autism but I never expected a simple fish tank to help my daughter so much.


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