Are Pets Good for Children with Autism?
Benefits of Pets on Children with Autism
Companionship and Social Interaction. One of the key benefits of having a pet at home is that it provides a form of companionship to members of the family. In particular, it may be easier for a person with autism to interact with animals because animals are nonverbal and non-judgemental. In a way, some people believe that pets act as a form of social lubricant for children with autism, who may initially find it daunting to interact with their neurotypical peers or adults. Once a secure and comforting relationship has been established between the child and their pet, these animals can then serve as a bridge to help children with autism explore social settings and eventually interact with others.
Kindness, Responsibility and Communication. Pets require caretaking and attention on a daily basis. In caring for them, children will subconsciously develop kindness and a sense of responsibility. The pet may need certain things from day to day, which could include food, water or even a walk. Oftentimes, these are things that young children will not be able to obtain or settle by themselves. Once the child forms an attachment to the pet, this will actually serve as a strong internal motivation to communicate to an adult what is needed. In the long term, it will push the child to further develop his/her communication skills, so as not to compromise their pet’s well-being and needs.
Social situations may be extremely stressful for children with autism. Pets can provide a familiar source of comfort and have a calming effect on the children in day to day situations and especially so in social settings. Pets also help children with autism develop a positive sense of self. As mentioned previously, pets are non-judgmental, showing unconditional love and affection. Autistic children may have behaviours that make their peers or adults uncomfortable, but the pet will likely remain unfazed, since they are not subject to the same socialisation process that individuals go through as they grow up, thus not perceiving the behaviour as anything out of the ordinary. Their love for the child remains unwavering and oblivious to any such behaviour, which will provide a helpful and therapeutic environment for children with autism to come home to.
Unsurprisingly, many of the aforementioned do not apply exclusively to children with autism, but also to the rest of the family. In a 2020 study by the University of Missouri-Columbia, parents of children with autism report higher levels of stress then parents of neurotypical children. This study has extended scope to find that having pets not only leads to stronger bonds and reduced stress for autistic children, but for their parents as well.
Considerations prior to getting a pet
If pets are so good, shouldn’t we all get pets? While pets do bring along a myriad of benefits with them, there are a number of considerations we must keep in mind before getting a pet. This is especially so for families of children with autism.
Type of Pet and Compatibility
When getting a pet, it is crucial to ensure that the pet is compatible with the family. For instance, if the child is easily agitated or is sensitive to noise from his/her surrounding environment, it will not be a good idea for the family to get a dog who barks loudly often. On the contrary, for children who have strong sensory needs, having a pet that is loud and on the noisier end may in turn be beneficial in helping the child regulate. Thus, it is of utmost importance to ensure that the pet’s personality, activity level as well as other characteristics are compatible with that of the child’s, as well as the rest of the family’s.
Naturally, it is also important to consider the health implications of introducing a pet to the family. Should any member of the family have existing allergies (e.g. allergic to fur, saliva or urine, etc.), it is advisable to consult a medical professional to check if the pet may evoke any severe allergic reactions. Individuals with pet allergy may present with hay fever, such as sneezing and runny nose, or even experience signs of asthma, such as wheezing and difficulty breathing. Therefore, it is critical to seek professional advice before making any decisions.
Commitment and Pet’s Well-Being
Last but certainly not least, we need to keep in mind that a pet is a lifetime responsibility. Caretaking tasks, depending on the type of pet, could include pet grooming, feeding the pet, taking walks, bathing the pet, cleaning up after the pet, bringing the pet for visits to the vet, amongst many others. Realistically, having a pet also requires an investment of money. Expenditure on pets includes food, toys, pet grooming and numerous other miscellaneous spendings. Needless to say, healthcare costs, be it preventive (e.g. vaccinations, parasite control) or therapeutic may also take a further toll on the family’s finances. If the family is not capable of providing a warm and safe environment for the pet, then getting a pet should not be an option. The pet-family relationship should be a mutually beneficial and loving relationship, not one that is centered around just the family’s needs and wants. As much as the pets benefit us in a multitude of ways, let’s not forget that they too deserve a lifetime of love and care.
Hopefully, this has been a helpful and succinct read for families who have been considering getting a pet and has shed light on the key considerations involving this decision.
Written by Jia Yi.
University of Missouri-Columbia. (2020, April 27). Stress in parents of children with autism: Pets may help: Researcher examines impact of pet dogs, cats on families with autism. ScienceDaily. Retrieved September 12, 2020 from www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2020/04/200427100459.htm