Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Hakes: Ruby Rabbit rocks autism class

From The Des Moines Register by Dick Hakes

 
(Photo: Dick Hakes photo / For the Press-Citizen )

She can't cure autism, but it's clear Ruby the Rescue Rabbit — as she is fondly known throughout Irving Weber Elementary School in western Iowa City — is a helpful addition to instructor Sarah McCurdy's autism class.

The kids will tell you that.

Erick, for example, quickly checked off the four daily chores the class performs on Ruby's behalf.

"Clean her litter box, feed her, vacuum her cage, watch her wherever she goes," he told me.

Routine is important to kids with autism. Ruby's care at the end of each day is a routine this class enthusiastically anticipates.

But her attributes do not stop there.

McCurdy's class of five students has a regular Friday field trip to Fareway to pick out vegetables for their class rabbit. Kale is her first choice, with spinach a close second. For a special treat, class members can give Ruby "yogurt drops for bunnies" one at time. The trips give class members another chance to interact with the world outside school.

Ruby is also a calming presence in a classroom where the frustrations of autism can sometimes boil over in a child. Petting her coal-black, minky-soft fur nearly put me to sleep and I could see a similar soothing effect on McCurdy's brood.

Another bonus: Ruby provides an effective reward incentive that reaches beyond this classroom. Other elementary kids at Weber, who might occasionally benefit from a "Ruby break," can earn one from their teacher for exceptional work or behavior.

And yes, she truly is a rescue rabbit. McCurdy explains how this class adoption project came about:

"Another class was working with crayfish as a science project and that's when I noticed how well my kids responded to animals," she said. "Most in my class do not have pets at home."

The young special ed teacher found Ruby at a Des Moines animal shelter, reluctantly placed there by a family who could no longer keep her because of medical problems within the family. She was used to kids and trained to use a litter box like a cat — two big perks.

Ruby is a Mini Rex breed, about 6 years old. She lives in a large collapsible cage at school except for holiday breaks and summers when McCurdy takes her home. The teacher is Ruby's official owner and foots the bill for her care and feeding out of her own pocket.

All in all, the black rabbit appears to have cornered the hearts of most of the students and staff at this school. "Even the custodian checks on her every night," said McCurdy. "He loves rabbits."

Although housebroken, on the rare occasions when Ruby is allowed to roam free in the classroom or in Sarah's abode, she's on strict probation. Apparently she has an unfortunate compulsion to chew on electrical cords.

It could be her only fault.

Dick Hakes is a former newspaper editor who recently settled in North Liberty. He writes a twice-weekly blog at www.press-citizen.com and can be reached at hakes@southslope.net.


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