Children with autism and pets
Autism is a neuropsychiatric developmental disorder that is far less rare than anyone would really imagine. In developed countries, autism affects about one in every 100-150 born children, and mainly boys. The symptoms of the disease are social behavioral problems, language, communication and cooperation deficiencies, etc. All these symptoms vary greatly, depending on the age of the child, but the main fact is that for children with autism, socializing is often the biggest challenge.
I can really tell you from my personal experience that it’s certainly very tough to have an autistic member in your family. This is especially true for the parents. Unfortunately, my youngest uncle’s only child has autism. We have all learnt to live with accepting disorders. Our goal all these years has been to find ways to make my cousin Vasilis’ life and his parents more tolerable and happier, by helping the child expand his communication skills as much as possible, since the whole problem lies there.
Of course this has been a difficult challenge for all of us. Among the things and practices that we tried over time, we saw that pets can have excellent results. They greatly benefit autistic children, having of course Vasilis’ case as an example.
Bringing him in contact with a dog enhanced my cousin’s communication skills substantially, and also helped the boy reduce his aggression. Although Vasilis had a difficult time communicating with other people, even with the members of his own family, he started a form of communication with the dog since it was brought home and during the presence of the dog in the same room or place with him, he remained and still is more relaxed, and without the aggressive outbreaks that he used to have in the past from time to time.
A pet can surely bring many benefits in general to all family members, especially children. This is because it helps people stay active, it helps them develop feelings of love and empathy and also makes people and kids more responsible and confident. When children with autism are concerned, the effects remain the same and are sometime even better.
Limited research but great results so far
Although research on children with autism and pets is rather new and still very limited, there are some first signs that demonstrate the actual benefits of this relationship. Animals can help in this situation, by creating a kind of bridge with children
with autism, who have difficulty talking and communicating even basically with other people.
In addition, some recent studies from researchers all around the world, have shown an improvement as far as social skills are concerned in children with autism who live with a pet, than those living without an animal in the house. Also many experts note that trained animals, such as dogs, horses, dolphins, etc., can actually help the development of the children’s social skills with autism and reduce the stress and tensions that they may be feeling. In the classroom they may struggle to engage with other children, which can lead to isolation, rejection and various other stressful interactions, but this doesn’t happen in the case of animals.
Nevertheless, a recent study suggests that cats and dogs may not be the best choice for children with autism, because they can be “too unpredictable” for them in many situations. According to that study, Guinea pigs are the animal of preference for some children with autism. Other options could also be fish, rabbits, reptiles, a bird etc.
Although living with a pet can provide benefits in children with autism. However, studies are still limited, which is why every parent should carefully consider their ability to grow and take care of a pet, since an autistic child will not be able to cope with the basic needs of a pet. And of course you have to remember also that animals are not a cure for autism but a means to make life for all, more tolerable. They really do help though in many situations if not all, I can tell you that from my personal experience with my little cousin. In Vasilis’ case that dog helped my cousin drastically improve the level of his social interaction.