Animals And Autism – Can A Pet Help Your Autistic Child?
by Helen Young
The internet is full of wonder tales about the power of pets to save and to heal us. And there’s plenty of truth to a lot of them. But can this power be utilized to help children (and adults!) with autism? Potentially, the answer is a resounding ‘Yes!’. But it all depends upon the individual (and the animal!) in question.
Pets And The Psyche
There’s a lot of evidence to suggest that pet ownership - or simply interactions with animals - are very good for us indeed. Something as simple as stroking a dog can lower your blood pressure and soothe away your stress. Animals provide those who love them with a surprising amount of psychological support, to the extent that they’ve been used successfully as a kind of ongoing ‘therapy’ for those struggling with a wide range of mental and behavioral disorders. How could this translate into an autism context? Well, potentially, a much loved dog or cat could help an autistic individual to deal with the daily stressors and anxieties within their lives. Many autistic people find human company a bit bewildering, and consequently both draining and (sometimes) stressful. Animals provide undemanding, non judgmental social contact which will ease the isolation felt by some with autism, without being too demanding. Parents who find that their autistic children respond well to pets also state that the presence of the animal can not only reduce the likelihood of a meltdown, but help to soothe the child when a meltdown is in progress. A very valuable skill!
However, there’s more to ‘pet therapy’ than a reduction in stress and improved mental health. Pets can also teach valuable lessons in an almost totally un-pressured way. For a start, the experience of being loved by a pet teaches an autistic child that they are worthy of love - an ephemeral but vital lesson! The responsibility of pet ownership gives a sense of self-worth, as well as teaching the child (any child, not just those with autism!) about caring for others. Then there’s the communications aspect of things. A pet requires a certain specialized set of communication skills. They cannot communicate with us through human means, so the human must learn to recognize and respond to the animal’s communicative signals, as well as devising ways of making their own desires clear to the animal. Communication is something with which many autistic children struggle, so this may seem like a big ask (and a stressful one!) which could have negative consequences. However, often it seems that the opposite is true. While attempts to communicate with other humans can often lead to overload and meltdown, it appears that autistic children are more capable of recognizing the essential ‘difference’ between themselves and animals than they are between themselves and other humans. When another human doesn’t ‘get’ what they’re feeling (or vice versa), it’s intensely frustrating for many autistic individuals. However, when an animal doesn’t ‘get’ it, it’s comprehensible. Parents who fight to have simple communications with an easily frustrated child are often astounded at the calm lengths to which that same child will go in order to communicate with an animal. Needless to say, learning to recognize, respond to, and use communicative signals which are alien to them is a skill which many autistic children will need in later life. On a less psychological (but no less important) level, pets can also act as a ‘social lubricant’ - providing a ‘safe’ subject about which to chat with friends.
A Word Of Caution…
As we all know by now, just as everyone has different proclivities, tendencies, and personalities, so do those with autism. No one thing is ‘guaranteed’ to help every autistic individual - it all depends greatly upon the person. While pets have worked apparent miracles for some autistic children, others prove ambivalent to them, and still others may be distressed by them. There are no guarantees. Furthermore, all children, autistic or otherwise, should be supervised when with animals. This is for both their own sake and that of the animal - unintentional accidents do happen, however gentle your child, and however even-tempered your pet! Nonetheless, with these provisos in place, if you feel that getting a pet could improve your autistic child’s life, then do your research, meet some animals and - if your child seems to respond well - think about taking the plunge. Plenty of people sing the praises of pets for autistic children, you could join their ranks!
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