Where the Science of Psychology Meets the Art of Being Human

Children With Autism: The Difference a Pet Can Make

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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.’

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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?

Reply
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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Hey Warrior - A book about anxiety in children.








Hey Sigmund on Instagram

Our kids are going to make bad decisions. Hopefull Our kids are going to make bad decisions. Hopefully they’ll make plenty - it’s one of the ways they’ll learn and grow. We won’t always be able to love them out of a bad decision, but we want to be the ones they come to when the mess unfolds. 
When they get it really wrong, they’ll know it. They’ll also know exactly what we think. Of course we’ll be tempted to remind them over and over of what they’ve done and the fallout from that, but it will be useless. There is no new wisdom in telling them ‘I told you so’, and it also runs the risk of switching them off to our influence and guidance at a time they need it most. 
There will be wisdom in the mess for sure, and the best way to foster the discovery is to make a safe space for this to happen - and there is no safer space than in their connection with you. 
When we prioritise connection above lectures, criticism, or judgement, we clear the path for self-reflection. This is where the magic happens. When they feel safe with us, and free from shame or disconnection, we have enormous power to facilitate growth - ‘Can you tell me what happened? I know you’re a great kid and I’m wondering what made this feel like a good decision? What can you do differently next time? I know you didn’t mean for this to happen but it has, and I’m wondering how you might put things right? Do you need my help with that?’ When we strip it back to bare, discipline was always meant to be about teaching, and this will never happen when there is shame or when they feel disconnected from us. You are their everything. They don’t want to do the wrong thing and they don’t want to disappoint you - but they will, lots of times. 
With every one of their bad decisions is an opportunity to guide them towards growth, but only if we keep them close and hold their hearts gently amidst the breakage. When we keep their hearts open to us, they will open their minds and their mouths too. They will talk and they will listen, and they will know that even when their behaviour is ‘questionable’, they are our everything too.

Our kids are going to make bad decisions. Hopefully they’ll make plenty - it’s one of the ways they’ll learn and grow. We won’t always be able to love them out of a bad decision, but we want to be the ones they come to when the mess unfolds.
When they get it really wrong, they’ll know it. They’ll also know exactly what we think. Of course we’ll be tempted to remind them over and over of what they’ve done and the fallout from that, but it will be useless. There is no new wisdom in telling them ‘I told you so’, and it also runs the risk of switching them off to our influence and guidance at a time they need it most.
There will be wisdom in the mess for sure, and the best way to foster the discovery is to make a safe space for this to happen - and there is no safer space than in their connection with you.
When we prioritise connection above lectures, criticism, or judgement, we clear the path for self-reflection. This is where the magic happens. When they feel safe with us, and free from shame or disconnection, we have enormous power to facilitate growth - ‘Can you tell me what happened? I know you’re a great kid and I’m wondering what made this feel like a good decision? What can you do differently next time? I know you didn’t mean for this to happen but it has, and I’m wondering how you might put things right? Do you need my help with that?’ When we strip it back to bare, discipline was always meant to be about teaching, and this will never happen when there is shame or when they feel disconnected from us. You are their everything. They don’t want to do the wrong thing and they don’t want to disappoint you - but they will, lots of times.
With every one of their bad decisions is an opportunity to guide them towards growth, but only if we keep them close and hold their hearts gently amidst the breakage. When we keep their hearts open to us, they will open their minds and their mouths too. They will talk and they will listen, and they will know that even when their behaviour is ‘questionable’, they are our everything too.
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