Pets are the silent loyal friends who stay with us in our homes, yet their importance goes beyond just being pets. They offer great company and will always stick around no matter what. To children with autism, these animals are not just company; they are companions.
In a study conducted on parents of children with autism about their interaction with pet dogs published in The Journal of Pediatric Nursing, it was confirmed that most families own a dog and 94% of the children had established a strong connection with their dog. This shouldn’t come as a surprise at all. Children in the spectrum have a lot to gain from interacting with pets. Dogs, especially, are known to be readily loyal and loving companions, something that these children may not find in their peers.
In fact, for such children, it will take them much effort and sometimes a series of bad experiences before they can penetrate the circles of their peers whether in school or at home. Pets on the other hand are quite welcoming. Rather than your child trying to reach out to them, they will willingly approach them for friendship. And because these children are sensitive to expressions of love and appreciation, they will most readily connect with pets rather than human friends.
All the same, because such a connection will yield faster social development in these children, they are better off spending some time with their pets.
So, should you have a family pet for the sake of your child with autism?
Certainly, yes! Here are some justifiable reasons why.
Cushioning from stress attributed to social development
Children with autism take time to develop socially compared to their ‘typical’ friends and this is one major cause of stress and anxiety. This is because it will take time, patience, and some learning for them to fit into social circles. Before this happens, many experiences both good and nasty go into their making.
Pets are generally not reactionary. They may not even notice how children with autism will express themselves in certain situations. They are receptive in nature which makes it easy for these children to relate with them. And as science has proved it, children develop social skills faster and more confidently because they will use the social skills they normally struggle with among other children, like starting a conversation and keeping it, when around their pet friends.
Quite interestingly, children with pets in their homes, those in the spectrum included, have higher self-esteem compared to their friends. This may be due to the fact that they will have an unprejudiced companion who stands by them and doesn’t criticize them. This certainly lays a foundation of confidence and ultimately self-esteem.
Here’s a chance for others to approach
If dealing with their human friends, children with autism may find themselves in a position of having to approach others for friendship and other social activities. Many children love pets and so having a pet around is a way of attracting attention and having others come to them rather than them approaching, which to them comes as a great advantage.
Having a pet teaches responsibility
Unlike human friends, pet friends come with added tasks since they won’t serve themselves food or clean up after themselves. Having them around means someone has to take responsibility for such tasks and who else if not the friends they have made around the house? Taking care of these pets may just as well be a heartfelt ‘thank you’ from your child with autism for the unconditional friendship they have received and this sure helps them become responsible, respectful, and appreciative.
It’s all about love, care, and share
The study carried out by The University of Cambridge in the UK revealed that children who experienced challenges in their emotional development were likely to turn to pets rather than siblings or peers for support. Quite interestingly, these children developed better social skills like sharing and caring instead of their previous experience influencing their actions.
It’s a real workout!
Interaction with pets needs extra energy. Because children, especially those with autism, tend to withdraw indoors especially when faced with challenges, engaging their pets is a welcome form of work out. For instance, playing outside with the dog or taking it for a walk in the park. Such kinds of engagement are not only good distracters of stress but also a good strategy of keeping your child and pup healthy.
More opportunities for story time
Children who have difficulty reading feel safer and much more confident reading to their pets, which contributes to their success in reading at school.
Pets would never criticize. Instead they will remain receptive, loving, and focused on their little human friends and this sets the whole difference between humans and animals.
Therapy is never the same
Pets are an important part of therapy, research has shown. With them present, children with autism take care to behave responsibly or perhaps in a friendlier way compared to anyone else.
Pets are fun animals to play with, particularly outdoors, where there is ample space to run around and throw balls. Kids with dogs and toys will more likely want to go and play out rather than staying indoors. This, you will agree, is far better than staying indoors. The more your child will go out to play, the better and faster he or she will develop socially.
Best friend, better health
Dog-assisted therapy has become common in helping children with autism interact more and develop social skills. What studies have revealed is that when these children interact with therapy animals, their system reacts by increasing neurochemicals that cause them to relax. This helps with anxiety and blood pressure.
The main aim of animal-assisted therapy is to stimulate the child with autism psychologically, physically, emotionally and in their play.
The bottom line
While pets are a great idea for children with autism, some may resist pets or get agitated by an active dog. In this case, it is important to try and select a pet that your child can relate with or look for an alternative pet. However, it is not written in stone that children with autism need to have pets around to develop socially. Others may just not like the idea of animals around them. However, there is always something your child will be comfortable doing or having, that will set him or her rolling on the social front.
As a parent, find out what that is and support your child each step of the way.