The Positive Effect of Animals for Autistic People
The positive effects animals have on autistic individuals was recently highlighted in a study from the NIH/Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development. The study found when animals are present, children with autism spectrum disorders (ASDs) have lower readings on a device that detects anxiety and other forms of social arousal when interacting with their peers.
Dogs, cats or guinea pigs were used in the study and may be a helpful addition to treatment programs designed to help autistic children improve their social skills and interactions with other people. I know my own children’s social skills have improved in programs such as Story Pals at the public library. My children read aloud to a dog once a week. Their anxiety is reduced in the presence of their dog, making them more interactive and social. There is considerably more language and improved communication when they are reading to their dog.
Some people with autism do not like animals and are initially afraid of them because of their unpredictability. Do not give up if initial interactions prove difficult. It can take a lot of exposure to animals to start to be comfortable. I can remember a time when both of my children were terrified of all animals. My 16 year old daughter has now developed a passion for cats which has come from repeated exposure to them through attending cat shows, visiting friends who have cats, going to the pet store, and looking at cats on You Tube. She now want to work with cats for a living. We still need to get her handling cats, but she is now petting them and letting them get close to her.
Susan Dunne, autistic adult, wrote a brilliant article about the impact horses have had on her life. Susan says, “Something strange happens when I go to be with my four horses at the end of the day. With them I am no longer an outsider battling through the day, tolerating unwanted noise, sights, company. I am no longer alone either – I have come to join in with this herd who accept me willingly, just as I am. This is what makes it so different: I want to be here, want to be with these magnificent gentle creatures where I feel accepted and at peace.”
Animals don’t judge and accept people’s differences. Because communication with them is nonverbal, it can alleviate the stress of having to talk and converse. Introduce animal contact slowly and allow for opportunities for repeated exposure. A relationship with an animal is a special one and can enrich a person’s life.
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