Children With Autism: The Difference a Pet Can Make

Deciding whether or not to bring a pet into the family is a big decision. We bring them in. We fall in love. They love us back. Sometimes they find trouble like it’s what they were put here to do, but then they do that cute face thing they all seem to manage at exactly the right time and we’re deleting the ‘Pet For Sale’ sign ideas from our head.

The benefits of owing a pet on mental health have long been established in the literature. Recently researchers looked at whether there were any particular benefits of pet ownership for children with autism.


They Study. What They Did

70 families who had children with autism participated in the study. The children were aged between 8 and 18. About 70% of the families had dogs and about half had cats. Other pets included fish, farm animals, rodents, rabbits, reptiles, a bird and a spider. 

What They Found 

Children who lived with a pet had greater social skills compared to those who did not have a pet at home. 

As explained by researcher Gretchen Carlisle:

‘The data revealed that children with any kind of pet in the home reported being more likely to engage in behaviours such as introducing themselves, asking for information or responding to other people’s questions. These kinds of social skills typically are difficult for kids with autism, but this study showed children’s assertiveness was greater if they lived with a pet.’


In research conducted specifically on the effect of dogs, it was found that for children with autism, the longer they had owned a dog the better the their social skills were, though living with any pet had a positive impact. 

The researchers explained the findings by noting that pets often act as ‘social lubricants’. When pets are around children seem to talk and engage with each other. This could explain why children who have a pet at home are more assertive

As Carlisle explained, ‘Kids with autism don’t always readily engage with others, but if there’s a pet in the home that the child is bonded with and a visitor starts asking bout the pet, the child may be more likely to respond.’

Which Pet is Best for Children with Autism?

The best type of pet depends on the child, but dogs have been suggested as one to keep in mind because they can provide unconditional, nonjudgemental love and companionship.

Interestingly when the children were asked, they reported having the strongest attachment to smaller dogs.

Children with autism are so individual and it’s important to involve them in the decision as to which pet to bring into the family.

If the child is sensitive to loud noises, for example, a dog that is a barker won’t be the best option. If the child has touch sensitivities, the feel of the dog will be important for them.

‘Many children with autism know the qualities they want in a dog, Carlisle explained. ‘If parents could involve their kids in choosing dogs for their families, it may be more likely the children will have positive experiences with the animals when they are brought home.’

2 Comments

Kirsten

Is 14 too old to start looking for a dog for my autistic son? He was diagnosed at age two. We had a cat until he passed this year at age 17. And what about a trained dog for people with autism or a therapy dog?

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Hey Sigmund

It’s definitely not too old. I’ve heard great things about the trained dogs you have mentioned, so that might be worth considering too.

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Anxiety will always tilt our focus to the risks, often at the expense of the very real rewards. It does this to keep us safe. We’re more likely to run into trouble if we miss the potential risks than if we miss the potential gains. 

This means that anxiety will swell just as much in reaction to a real life-threat, as it will to the things that might cause heartache (feels awful, but not life-threatening), but which will more likely come with great rewards. Wholehearted living means actively shifting our awareness to what we have to gain by taking a safe risk. 

Sometimes staying safe will be the exactly right thing to do, but sometimes we need to fight for that important or meaningful thing by hushing the noise of anxiety and moving bravely forward. 

When children or teens are on the edge of brave, but anxiety is pushing them back, ask, ‘But what would it be like if you could?’ ♥️

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Except I don’t do hungry me or tired me or intolerant me, as, you know … intolerably. Most of the time. Sometimes.
Growth doesn’t always announce itself in ways that feel safe or invited. Often, it can leave us exhausted and confused and with dirt in our pores from the fury of the battle. It is this way for all of us, our children too. 

The truth of it all is that we are all born with a profound and immense capacity to rise through challenges, changes and heartache. There is something else we are born with too, and it is the capacity to add softness, strength, and safety for each other when the movement towards growth feels too big. Not always by finding the answer, but by being it - just by being - safe, warm, vulnerable, real. As it turns out, sometimes, this is the richest source of growth for all of us.
When the world feel sunsettled, the ripple can reach the hearts, minds and spirits of kids and teens whether or not they are directly affected. As the important adult in the life of any child or teen, you have a profound capacity to give them what they need to steady their world again.

When their fears are really big, such as the death of a parent, being alone in the world, being separated from people they love, children might put this into something else. 

This can also happen because they can’t always articulate the fear. Emotional ‘experiences’ don’t lay in the brain as words, they lay down as images and sensory experiences. This is why smells and sounds can trigger anxiety, even if they aren’t connected to a scary experience. The ‘experiences’ also don’t need to be theirs. Hearing ‘about’ is enough.

The content of the fear might seem irrational but the feeling will be valid. Think of it as the feeling being the part that needs you. Their anxiety, sadness, anger (which happens to hold down other more vulnerable emotions) needs to be seen, held, contained and soothed, so they can feel safe again - and you have so much power to make that happen. 

‘I can see how worried you are. There are some big things happening in the world at the moment, but my darling, you are safe. I promise. You are so safe.’ 

If they have been through something big, the truth is that they have been through something frightening AND they are safe, ‘We’re going through some big things and it can be confusing and scary. We’ll get through this. It’s okay to feel scared or sad or angry. Whatever you feel is okay, and I’m here and I love you and we are safe. We can get through anything together.’
I love being a parent. I love it with every part of my being and more than I ever thought I could love anything. Honestly though, nothing has brought out my insecurities or vulnerabilities as much. This is so normal. Confusing, and normal. 

However many children we have, and whatever age they are, each child and each new stage will bring something new for us to learn. It will always be this way. Our children will each do life differently, and along the way we will need to adapt and bend ourselves around their path to light their way as best we can. But we won't do this perfectly, because we can't always know what mountains they'll need to climb, or what dragons they'll need to slay. We won't always know what they’ll need, and we won't always be able to give it. We don't need to. But we'll want to. Sometimes we’ll ache because of this and we’ll blame ourselves for not being ‘enough’. Sometimes we won't. This is the vulnerability that comes with parenting. 

We love them so much, and that never changes, but the way we feel about parenting might change a thousand times before breakfast. Parenting is tough. It's worth every second - every second - but it's tough. Great parents can feel everything, and sometimes it can turn from moment to moment - loving, furious, resentful, compassionate, gentle, tough, joyful, selfish, confused and wise - all of it. Great parents can feel all of it.

Because parenting is pure joy, but not always. We are strong, nurturing, selfless, loving, but not always. Parents aren't perfect. Love isn't perfect. And it was meant to be. We’re raising humans - real ones, with feelings, who don't need to be perfect, and wont  need others to be perfect. Humans who can be kind to others, and to themselves first. But they will learn this from us. Parenting is the role which needs us to be our most human, beautifully imperfect, flawed, vulnerable selves. Let's not judge ourselves for our shortcomings and the imperfections, and the necessary human-ness of us.❤️

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