Poultry, death, and life-lessons for the autistic

Yesterday morning, I went out to check on our chicks and let the adult hens out for their daily forage. This is part of the usual morning routine. I let the hens out of their coop, but they didn’t race out as they often do, and I didn’t hear the usual cheeping of the chicks coming from the chick’s run, so I peeked in. To my horror, I saw ten piles of feathers. I got closer and realized that I was looking at ten dead chicks, spread throughout the run. I’m not sure what sounds I made at that moment, but they were loud and distressed. I went back into the house and told the husband and son, trying not to completely freak out. They were both initially confused, then upset.

On one level, it seems kind of silly to be distraught about chickens. I mean, they’re just birds, right? People eat them. But, for one, we have been raising them for the last few months from hatchlings. They’re cute as hell, and many of them have developed recognizable personalities and some even had names. We’ve been completely responsible for their health and welfare. That they died – were killed – makes me feel like the ultimate in horrible parents.

Another reason to be distressed is that at least one of them ‘belonged’ to the boy. I don’t know if there were others that the boy was fond of but Ben, our only cockerel (soon to be a fabulous rooster), was selected by the boy and they had bonded as much as any person can bond with a non-mammalian species.

Still, this might not seem like much, but consider that my son has ‘high functioning’ autism. Because of his autism, the boy doesn’t express emotion very well. He can’t verbalize very well how he feels, so it’s a challenge to know what he’s thinking. I know he’s taking the chicks’ deaths hard, because he’s dwelling on it. It’s the major topic of conversation with him. He’s now very concerned about predators (we’re pretty sure an opossum got to the chicks). We have to be active to help him assign words to feelings, then teach him appropriate responses. We have to be sure we don’t over-react. We have to ensure that we respond appropriately. So what can we do?

Last night, the husband took the boy to a nearby farm to purchase some more chicks to show him the necessity of moving on. I took it on myself to dig a grave for the dead chicks. When they got home, we had a short but solemn ceremony to bury the chicks, in order to teach to boy how to respectfully mourn such a loss and get ‘closure’ (if there is such a thing). Hopefully all this will help him. At least, I think it helped my husband and I know it helped me.

Now we’ve got six new chicks that we are going to raise. Hopefully, there will be no hideous disasters like this again. Hopefully, the boy will grow from this. Hopefully, you all can gain a positive lesson from this as well.

Thanks for listening.

2 thoughts on “Poultry, death, and life-lessons for the autistic

  1. Thanks Penny. I kind of did the same thing with R. Told her that the hen was going somewhere warm where she could eat ants all day, but that she would never get to see her again, so she needed to say goodbye. John did not want her to touch her, b/c he is worried maybe the hen had a virus. It was hard to articulate to a 2yo death, and it was really the first time I found myself in that position (and I am sure not the last). We have had a neighbor chicken owner offer to let us adopt a few of her older hens. I know this will make our hen feel better, and keep her from being alone, which seems to be wigging her out. I am not just afraid of the next death. I get so attached. It is hard when you come home and they have died. But it is worse to hold her and watch herd die, and know that all you can do is talk to her and try to make her relaxed and calm. So sad, but I wanted to do the best by her. I did not want her to feel alone.
    Anyway. Thank you for writing this. How long did E linger on the topic? I know if is not the same, but R saw “Finding Nemo” over a month ago, and every single day she still tells us “Green guy took Nemo away” – I think she is traumatized. It really seems to have her wigged out. We try to explain to her that if she will remember, Nemos dad helps save him, and they are reunited. Try to get her to focus on the happy ending, but she keeps dwelling on the traumatic part, even when we reassure her it will not happen to her. I am really worried we messed her up. No more movies till we watch them with a little kid in mind. Its amazing the thing you never would have noticed and how they sink in…..

  2. E dwelt on it for several weeks, and it does yet come up from time-to-time. I think it really helped him understand death though. We’ve had other chicken deaths from predators since then. We’ve also put a couple of our chickens on the dinner table. Evan has handled this all just fine.
    You just have to address the problems the same way every time they come up. They obsess because they’re worried. You reassure them every time and keep your cool. They’ll be fine. Don’t worry about a movie. Just do the broken record. I cried at Fantasia. I wasn’t scarred for life.

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