Does Having a Pet Help Children with Autism?
Having a pet sounds like an extremely fun idea. There are various research out there that supports having a pet in a household when raising a child with autism. In this article, we will explore if that is true.
1. Companionship and Friendship
Pets provide companionship and friendship, especially for children with autism. As pets are nonverbal and nonjudgmental, it might be easier for them to interact with their pets than humans. There are not as many ‘rules’ involving interactions with pets compared to the latter. And it can be a lot less effortful being around pets than humans. As a result, pets can be a nice companion to have to reduce loneliness.
2. Relieves Anxiety
Secondly, pets help alleviate anxiety. Children with autism do often experience feelings of anxiety as they tend to make sense of the world a bit differently. Anxiety can manifest in different ways like undesirable behaviours, or stimming behaviours. Studies have shown that merely the act of petting as well as playing with pets reduces stress-related hormones (e.g. cortisol). This physiological effect that relieves anxiety can help children with autism feel calmer and may not have to engage in anxiety-manifested behaviours.
3. Foster a Sense of Responsibility
Having a pet at home can help a child foster a sense of responsibility. By involving your child in taking care of the pet, like daily feeding or playing with the pet, your child learns that there are certain tasks that he/she has to complete in order to ensure the survival of another being. Having fostered this sense of responsibility would make it easier for you to teach your child other skills such as self-grooming and helping out with chores.
4. Improve Social Behaviour
It was also shown that owning a pet can improve a child’s social behaviour. For instance, dogs can help children with autism act as a social lubricant. This can play out in a situation where other children are first playing with the dog and then the child would have that shared opportunity to socialise with the other children.
Another way in which a child’s social behaviour can be improved is through directly playing with the pet. For example, a child can learn the concept of turn-taking when playing ‘Fetch’ in a very natural setting.
5. Improve Family Function and Reduce Household Stress
Lastly, family functioning and stress in a household can have a huge impact on the development of a child with autism. It is reported that owning a pet in a household can reduce parental stress and improve family functioning. When the overall level of stress in the household is reduced, the child can have the opportunity to gain positive childhood experiences and this can aid development.
It is possible that a child with autism might develop a fear of animals, if encountered with a traumatising situation in the past or even a learned fear from media platforms. In this situation, there is a need to first manage the fear before the pet can be of help.
Fortunately, if managed appropriately, getting over the fear can bring about some benefits as well. It may teach the child that fears can be overcome, and that the skills could be generalised to overcoming other fears in the future, building up resilience.
2. Allergies or Hypersensitivity
There are also other considerations to take note of, such as allergies or hypersensitivity for some children with autism. Allergy reactions can be stressful and uncomfortable for your child. It might be best to think twice before getting a furry pet for your child if there is a known allergy to animal fur, for instance.
Some children might also be hypersensitive to sounds. If the pet happens to be a tiny dog known to bark incessantly, then it might be too overwhelming for your child. Perhaps a different pet can be considered.
3. Gap in Research
One last thing to keep in mind is that most research available currently predominantly focuses on dogs as pets rather than any other animals (e.g. turtle, fish). Little is known about the effects of the latter. As such, the nature of the pet can have a big difference in its helpfulness. Can your child interact with the pet directly? If yes, then it’s safe to say that research supports your decision of getting a pet for your child.
All in all, if time and resources permit, and you are able to commit to taking care of the pet, getting a pet for your child and your family might not be a bad idea after all since there seems to be sufficient evidence to support its benefits. Plus, to have a new adorable member in the family can be a really fun experience too!
Written by: Tiffany
Bennie, M., About the author: Maureen Bennie Maureen Bennie created the Autism Awareness Centre in 2003 to address what she saw as a gap in support and advocacy for those struggling with autism and autism spectrum disorders. For Maureen, Maureen Bennie created the Autism Awareness Centre in 2003 to address what she saw as a gap in support and advocacy for those struggling with autism and autism spectrum disorders. For Maureen, says:, J. L., 8, M. B. says: S., says:, M. B., says:, I. H., 1, M. B. says: A., & *, N. (2020, April 21).
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Haelle, T. (2015, January 5). Can pets help boost social skills for kids with autism? WebMD. Retrieved May 19, 2022, from https://www.webmd.com/brain/autism/news/20150105/can-pets-help-boost-social-skills-for-kids