A child reading to a dog. Reading to animals can help children with autism

How Animals Benefit Individuals with Autism

Owning a pet and interacting with animals can have many benefits. An animal can provide companionship, friendship, reduce loneliness and alleviate anxiety. It can be easier for a person with autism to interact with an animal because an animal is nonverbal and non-judgemental. Owning a pet can also foster responsibility in children.

A study done in 2013 at the University of Missouri lead by Gretchen Carlisle, a research fellow at the Research Center for Human-Animal Interaction (ReCHAI) in the MU College of Veterinary Medicine, involved 70 parents of children with autism and their interaction with dogs. Carlisle reported that nearly two-thirds of the parents in the study owned dogs, and of those parents, 94 percent reported their children with autism were bonded to their dogs. Even in families without dogs, 70 percent of parents said their children with autism liked dogs.

“Dogs can help children with autism by acting as a social lubricant,” Carlisle said. “For example, children with autism may find it difficult to interact with other neighborhood children. If the children with autism invite their peers to play with their dogs, then the dogs can serve as bridges that help the children with autism communicate with their peers.” Parents who use service dogs have said the same thing that social interaction is increased with their children because the dog entices children to come over and be friendly.

Programs designed to connect children and animals can help allay fears

My two children read to a dog once a week for ten years through a program called Story PALS at our local library. The dogs in that program were not service dogs, but were screened for program suitability by the Pet Access League Society. The program had the biggest impact on my daughter, Julia. Julia had an intense phobia of dogs that was so severe, she could not get out of the car if a dog was visible even on a leash. When we first went to Story PALS, Julia would not go into the room and stood in the doorway and cried. Once she was able to get her anxiety in control, a beautiful relationship with her dog, Mika, developed over the ten year period. Eventually, Julia was able to pet Mika, allowed him to lick her hand, and she spoke to him with free flowing speech like he was a person. With most people, Julia mumbled and her speech was unintelligible. She also asked for eye contact with Mika while she was reading her storybooks. Julia emerged from this program a different person.

When Julia turned 13, she became interested in cats. Through internet research, she found a no-kill cat charity that fostered cats and found them good homes. She went to their website every day for several years to see what new cats were on the adoption list, who was trying out their new home, and who got adopted. We started to get involved with them by attending their adoption days, fundraisers, and events and we went once a month to a pet store where they brought two cats for adoption. As Julia’s interest in cats grew , it seemed like a good idea to get a cat for our family.

From pet lover, to pet owner: transition tips for those on the spectrum

In August 2015 after much discussion with Julia, we adopted as black cat that we named Mr. Darcy. Julia was so overwhelmed when we brought Mr. Darcy home that she wanted to give him away. She was sick for 3 days. She said her heart felt too full of love for Mr. Darcy and it scared her. To ease her stress and help her accept Mr. Darcy as a new family member, here is what we did:

  • Kept Mr. Darcy out of her room at night so as not to disturb her sleep. She found his surprise nocturnal visits anxiety provoking.
  • Did not involve her in any cat care until she felt comfortable.
  • Added a job for her to do for the cat very slowly and gradually.
  • Have never asked her to pick him up which she still can’t do. We have tried supporting Mr. Darcy while she has tried to hold him. She is used to having him sit in her lap now.
  • Developed routines with Mr. Darcy. For example, at Julia’s bath time, he sits on a towel on top of the toilet and keeps her company.
  • Involved Julia with vet appointments one year after we got Mr. Darcy. These appointments have gone very well.

Because of Julia’s care of Mr. Darcy and involvement in the Story PALS program, Julia was able to start volunteering with confidence at a cat charity two afternoons a week this fall. She uses her reading skills from the PALS program to read aloud to cats who need socialization. They sit around her when she reads, some with paws on her shoulders; others sit in her lap. She does some light cleaning of the cat areas but does not feed or brush the cats, although she could do both now. Julia needs no support when doing this job other than help with getting a cat that escapes out of the room. Spending time twice a week with these cats has changed Julia’s outlook on life.

Iris Grace from the UK has autism. Her relationship with her cat Thula has helped her to come out of her shell. Thula does everything with Iris including sitting with her while she paints. It’s a remarkable story of the bond one girl has with her cat and how that cat has changed her life.

There is more research being published every year on the benefit of animal assisted intervention and autism. While a pet may not be a good fit for every family, some exposure to animals may be beneficial for a child’s development and well-being.

 

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