Although there’s no cure for autism, research suggests that pets can be beneficial to wellbeing and may help adults and children with autism cope better. 

How do we know there are benefits?

One study showed pets of any kind serve as social lubricants. Children are more likely to engage in behaviours such as introducing themselves, asking for information or responding to questions: skills that are difficult for autistic children. Social skills temporarily improve after even just a short time with an animal. Having a family pet from a young age tends to improve social skills more. One study suggested that autistic people smile a lot more when they’re around animals. Other studies have shown that animals help improve behaviours such as offering to share and offering comfort.

Research shows a sharp drop in anxiety and social stress in autistic children when playing with animals, compared to engaging in other activities. When questioning parents of children with autism, 94% of dog owners said their child had bonded strongly with the animal. Seven of the ten families without a dog said their child enjoyed interacting with dogs.

The benefits pets bring to autistic children 

Pets are relaxing and promote calmness, whether just watching or interacting. Even watching fish in a tank can be therapeutic. They lower anxiety, helping autistic people to access challenging locations such as airports and shops and reduce fear of animals. They can help teach skills about treating others kindly and cautiously, modelling gentle behaviour and teaching compassion. Pets give children a listening ear when they’re angry, sad, or unhappy, giving unconditional love and acceptance and are thought to reduce the severity and frequency of ‘meltdowns’. 

Being involved in pet-care demonstrates how a living creature needs care, helping a child understand caring for themselves, teaches nurturing skills, and gives a sense of responsibility and pride. Pets are fun, and someone to play with when everyone else is busy, improving exercise, motor skills, and promoting healthy sleep. Pets can provide children with motivation when used alongside teaching and assist in the development of language skills. 

Some considerations before going ahead

Taking care of pets can be hard work. It’s great to get your child involved in day-to-day care, but if they don’t, then you will need to. Parents must be willing and able to provide the time for training and supervision of both pet and child. Pets can be costly, even just for basic feeding and general healthcare, so an affordability check is vital. Consider if your child can handle a pet. What would you do if your pet and child just do not click, or are allergic? Trialling pets is ideal, to test some of these potential issues. Ground rules are essential, around handling, giving them space, caring, and commitment. 

Which pet is best?

Many autistic adults and children prefer dogs. But the autistic population is as diverse as any other, so it’s important for parents, knowing their child’s individuality, to come up with a good match. Here are some general considerations. 

Dogs are a commitment in time, money, and longevity. 

Having a nature that is calm, sociable, highly-forgiving, and people-orientated is important. They need to be a friend for the child to trust and interact with. A child who easily agitated or sensitive to noise may not do well with a dog that is extremely active or barks lots. Low muscle tone and physical stamina are sometimes a problem for autistic children, so high energy dogs may not suit. Intelligent breeds you can train to behave appropriately, where the child can give commands that will be followed, are ideal. 

Support and therapy dogs are often larger, more gentle breeds. 

Golden retrievers and Labradors are a popular pet for children with autism, but other breeds may suit. If your child is prone to aggression, pulling tails, hair, squeezing (as would most young children), consider an older puppy, or young dog. A rescue dog with an unknown history or a history of issues needing special care itself isn’t a good choice.

If you can, foster before adoption

Or at least ensure plenty of opportunities for your child to meet the dog, observing their reactions before committing. 

Training dogs for autism is relatively new

However, organisations such as Dogs for Autism, Autism Dogs and Support Dogs may provide appropriate dogs. Dogs for good provide training for owners of pet dogs to get the most out of the relationship with their child.

Some autistic children have stronger relationships with cats than dogs. 

Scientists suspect that because cats, unlike dogs, don’t hold a stare but tend to look away after short bouts of eye contact, this may feel more comfortable for autistic children. Some autistic children find the outgoing nature of dogs intimidating and unpredictable. An adult cat whose nature is known is ideal. Again, fostering, or having a trial is best before committing, as cats have quite distinct personalities. 

Guinea pigs, like rats, are often gentle, as well as intelligent. 

Adults are ideal, as their temperament is known. Hamsters are not ideal. They move fast and can get grumpy when disturbed and bite. Although care of small pets can take time, they are cheaper and offer a shorter commitment due to their shorter lifespan. This does mean children have to face pet-death sooner and more frequently.

Read: Rat or Guinea Pig – which makes the best pet?

Although any kind of animal can provide support, mammals are a better choice than reptiles, birds, or fish. 

Fish can be calming but can’t provide the interactions that build skills. With limited funds, time, or as a first step it’s an option. Children can get salmonella and other illnesses from touching reptiles then putting their fingers in their mouths. 

Some people with autism find horses intimidating while others benefit from equine therapy. 

Sitting on horseback improves strength and tone, guiding and talking with the horse improves communication skills and language. 

If done responsibly, animals may add huge value to autistic children, as well as the surrounding family. 

Do you have experience with pets and non-neurotypical children? If so, please comment and let us know your thoughts.

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