Pets And Children With Autism

A dog is man’s best friend. But for a person with autism, a dog or cat may be much more than that. He can be a confidante, a furry shoulder to cry on and a faithful companion. Integrating a pet into the life of a child with autism can make the difference between loneliness and solitude and a happy, full life.

The relationships between children with autism and pets can be magical. Here are things parents need to know to encourage positive interactions with pets.

The Benefits Of Interacting With Animals For People With Autism

While spending time with animals can be a positive experience for anyone, developing a relationship with a pet can be especially beneficial for individuals with autism. Research suggests that interacting with animals enhances children’s social, emotional and cognitive development. Having a pet teaches a child to consider and provide for the needs of another living creature. By learning to care for an animal, children with autism develop empathy and become more responsible.

Having a pet has also been linked to many different health and wellness benefits. Children who regularly interact with companion animals typically demonstrate higher levels of self-esteem and autonomy, and research suggests that they may have stronger immune systems and experience fewer allergies.

Many people report that having a pet decreases their stress level and increases feelings of calm. When researchers studied interactions between humans and dogs, they found higher levels of oxytocin – the “feel good” chemical – in both species. Spending time with a pet can decrease anxiety and lower a person’s heart rate, which can be especially beneficial for individuals with autism.

Animals often provide a sense of companionship and can help children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) to connect with other people. When a child with ASD interacts with a pet, the animal assists the child in making connections with their peers as well. Research has shown that children with autism make and receive more social approaches when interacting with an animal as compared to playing with a toy.

In a study of animal-assisted activities in schools, researchers followed 64 elementary school children with autism before and after an eight-week program in which animals were introduced into their classrooms. This research found significant improvements in the children’s social functioning after the program. At the study’s completion, the children with ASD were more likely to demonstrate appropriate social behavior and less likely to withdraw from social interaction. During the animal activities program, the majority of the children’s parents also reported that their child was more interested in attending school.

Why Many People With Autism Relate Well To Pets

Many individuals with autism enjoy a special connection with their pets. A 2013 study researched the interactions between children with ASD and dogs. When the researchers interviewed 70 parents of children with autism, 67 percent of them said that their family had at least one dog. Of those with dogs, 94 percent reported that their child with autism had bonded with their dog, and 70 percent of the parents whose families did not have a dog said that their child liked dogs.

For children with autism, an animal can be an excellent companion. Many pets are soft and generally quiet, qualities that are very appealing to people with sensory challenges like ASD. Animals don’t have any preconceived notions about children with autism and are typically open to bonding with anyone who abides by the basic principles of animal behavior.

The right pet provides positive interaction without the same demands as a human relationship. Unlike people, animals are nonverbal and nonjudgmental. They don’t share human’s expectations of appropriate social behavior. Many people enjoy talking to their pets because they listen without criticism or complaint. For someone who struggles with social interactions, relationships with pets can be easier to develop.

People with ASD can learn an animal’s likes and dislikes without the same level of pressure. Once they get to know a pet, the relationship is fairly routine. An animal’s needs and preferences tend to be predictable, and people with autism appreciate situations in which they can learn and apply a consistent set of rules.

Programs That Help Children With Autism Connect With Animals

If your child is unsure about or even afraid of pets, there are programs that can help introduce children with autism to animals. A program called Story PALS brings dogs to local libraries. Children have the opportunity to interact with and read to the dogs in a controlled setting. In addition to exposing children to animals, this program may also help its participants become better readers.

Children with autism can also benefit from interacting with therapy animals. These animals, typically dogs, are specifically selected for their temperament and/or receive special training to provide comfort and support to people in a variety of situations. Many hospitals and health care facilities offer programs or have volunteers who bring in therapy dogs. If you are interested in finding a program, ask your child’s doctor for a referral or visit the Assistance Dogs International website to find an accredited agency.

How To Choose A Pet And Integrate It Into Your Child’s Life

Whether your child is asking for a pet or another family member wants one, you should consider this decision carefully. Take a trial run first before committing to an adoption. Find a local shelter or rescue where you can observe how your child interacts with different animals. Consider volunteering so your child can learn the basics of animal care.

Introduce a new pet slowly. Like other major transitions, let your child with ASD know that you will be getting the animal and what to expect. Even if your child has been around animals before, review the basic pet safety rules. Discuss the pet’s needs and who will be responsible for different aspects of pet care.

When you bring your new pet home, let your child observe first without contact with the pet. Give both your child and the new pet time and space to adjust to each other. Model appropriate behavior, so your child can learn how to interact with your new pet. Allow your child to approach the animal on their own terms. When your child is ready to start interacting with the pet, provide supervision and intervene if necessary to ensure that they are both comfortable. If your child will be responsible for pet care, introduce these activities gradually.

While encouraging a positive relationship with animals may take some effort, research demonstrates that doing so can be very beneficial for your child’s development. Investing the time to slowly introduce your child to pets can help them develop rewarding connections with both animals and people.

At Lexington Services, we use the latest scientifically proven techniques and strategies to help children with autism achieve their full potential. Learn more about our wide range of services for people with autism and developmental disabilities.

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