Yet Another Reason to Love Our Pets: They Help Kids With Autism
We know, and have written about, the many physical and psychological benefits owning a pet has for adults, but did you know that caring for and bonding with a pet can help children with autism as well?
A recent study by the College of Veterinary Medicine at the University of Missouri showed that children with Autism Spectrum Disorder who also had a pet had significantly stronger social skills. In another study, parents of children with ASD reported that their children bonded and played well with pet dogs in particular. The researchers at the University of Missouri noted that, in social situations, kids with pets were “more likely to engage in behaviors 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.”
Pets Provide Emotional Support – And More
In fact, owning a pet can help improve communication skills, lower stress, and reduce problematic behavior in kids with autism disorders. And pets tend to help with these issues far better than toys, found another study in 2013: “Participants with ASD demonstrated more social approach behaviors (including talking, looking at faces, and making tactile contact) and received more social approaches from their peers in the presence of animals compared to toys. They also displayed more prosocial behaviors and positive affect (i.e., smiling and laughing) as well as less self-focused behaviors and negative affect (i.e., frowning, crying, and whining) in the presence of animals compared to toys.”
Why is this so? Put simply, perhaps the easiest answer is that pets can provide solid, nonjudgmental, reassuring emotional support. Isn’t that the appeal for many pet owners, regardless of age or need? The same reasons we often love our own pets – their calm, loyal companionship – can be extremely helpful for kids who have trouble filtering the overwhelming sights, smells, sounds, and other stimuli that others can manage on their own. Pets are physically soothing, with their warm bodies and soft fur and gentleness; they’re also emotionally soothing, providing a “grounding” or focal point to rest on. Moreover, they don’t judge or criticize “strange” or repetitive behaviors. They simply are, without judgment. In addition, pets can help create positive social interactions – if you’ve ever met a new friend at the dog park, you know just how pets can act as “social lubricant” in fostering connections and relationships.
Specially-Trained Assistance Pets
However, just as we know each person is different, and each child with ASD has different struggles and needs, we must also remember that each pet is different – and that not every pet would be a suitable companion for a child with ASD (or any child, for that matter). Specially-trained service and therapy animals might provide more effective and reliable help. For example, Autism Service Dogs of America (ASDA) is a non-profit organization that was formed to provide dogs trained specifically for autistic children. They write, “Our service dogs provide physical safety and an emotional anchor for children with autism. With their child tethered to a service dog, families are able to engage in activities as simple as going to the park or going out to eat as a family. When out in the community, a service dog increases safety and helps families feel secure. The service dog’s calming presence can minimize and often eliminate emotional outbursts, enabling the child to more fully participate in community and family activities. In many cases, the service dog accompanies the child to school, helping with transitions between activities and locations. Having a service dog helps increase opportunities for the child to develop social and language skills with others.”
Another non-profit, Paws With a Cause, offers Service Dogs for Children with Autism to “act as constant companions to children with autism to help them improve social interactions and relationships, expand verbal and nonverbal communication, teach life skills, increase interest in activities and decrease stress within the family. A PAWS Dog doesn’t pass judgment, but breaks into the world of autism and becomes a crucial part of the family’s life.”
Michele Arbogast, senior writer-producer for Autism Speaks, the world’s leading autism science and advocacy organization, has shared how her son Kyle’s life has been improved through his service dog, Taz: “Taz absorbs my son’s energy when he’s hyper. He sleeps with him for comfort. I have watched irritability and transition problems melt away as my son and other children pet him, sit next to him, and lie on him… Taz helps [Kyle and] every kid in [Kyle’s] school. He even transforms the days of people in Trader Joe’s.”
There are many, many more stories like this, of children and families who feel they’ve got a new lease on life with the help of a specially-trained assistance pet. Yet another reason to love our pets!
If you’re passionate about this issue and would like to help, we suggest getting involved with one of the non-profits mentioned above, or with a local therapy dog organization such as P.A.L. (PeopleAnimalsLove.org) or National Capital Therapy Dogs (www.nctdinc.org).
Written by: Ashley Denham Busse
Ashley Denham Busse has worked part-time for Doggywalker.com since 2006. Doggywalker.com is a professional pet-sitting company located in Old Town Alexandria, celebrating more than 14 years of providing daily walks and customized in-home pet care. Visit http://www.doggywalker.com or email firstname.lastname@example.org.