Is there a best pet for an autistic child? Does having a pet at home give any extra benefits to those with autism?
Animals are increasingly gaining popularity in the autism community as the immense benefits continue to be proven.
But if you are considering embracing the world of pet ownership, is there such a thing as a “best pet” for an autistic child?
Cat? Dog? Horse? Goldfish? Tortoise? Guinea pig?
What Are the Main Benefits of a Pet For An Autistic Child?
Every child and every family will have different needs that should be considered before selecting the best pet for an autistic child.
Having a pet will impact everyone in the family, in terms of extra time, extra work and extra cost.
But if it is right for you and your family, there are a ton of benefits that could really help your child.
Research shows that having a pet helps individuals with autism combats a deep sense of loneliness. Autistic individuals often feel misunderstood and left out by many in society.
With animals, however, they feel totally accepted and understood. Animals give unconditional love.
Autistic children tend to laugh, talk and display other positive emotions at a far greater rate when they are with animals than with humans.
Owning a pet dramatically reduces the anxiety, depression and fear that many people with autism feel. Research has also shown that behavioural problems decrease while positive social interactions and participation increase with animal assisted therapy.
Patting and stroking animals also has a very calming effect on the body and mind.
Click here if you’d like to know more ways to help reduce anxiety in your autistic child.
Teaches Your Child Responsibility
Many children these days can be very passive. They get told what to do at home and at school. They get driven here and there. Parents and teachers can tend to put most children in “cotton wool” for fear of dangers “out there”- perceived or actual.
Owning a pet teaches your child responsibility. Yes, it will take some time to train your child how to look after your pet, but what important lessons to learn that will help them in aspect of their life!
Teaches Your Child Kindness
Looking after the needs of another life teaches so many important life lessons. Your child will learn how to treat the animal gently, softly and with respect. They will learn how to form a deep bond over time which may carry over into human relationships. They are learning how to think about the needs of others- perhaps for the first time in their life-like feeding, toileting, cleaning, medical needs.
Children with autism tend to look at the faces of dogs longer than that of humans according to a 2015 study. Playing with animals helps train improved focus and attention in your autistic child. Engaging with another living being is more interesting for most people than playing with a toy or a book.
If your child has tasks/chores to do every day with the pet, it also helps to train memory, attention and focus. While your child is at school, they could use a weighted lap pad to help them concentrate and increase focus.
Improved Social Skills
A study from the University of Missouri (2014) showed that autistic children who had any kind of pet had improved social skills. They felt better able to interact and bond with others.
Another study in 2018 found that children who had a pet at home demonstrated a sharp drop in social anxiety and social stress when playing with animals.
Animals always act as an easy ‘ice breaker’. If your autistic child is socially challenged, playing with animals with other kids helps to break the ice and introduce a common interest.
Animals/pets can be a great topic to discuss with other kids who also have dogs/cats/fish etc.
In addition, children with Autism Spectrum Disorder smile and interact socially more frequently when animals are present. Children with autism who had a pet from a young age tend to have greater social skills overall than those without.
Are There Any Reason Why Some Families Should NOT Get A Pet For Their Autistic Children?
You need to assess your own child’s nature and ability.
You also need to assess the impact on your own time, budget and your other children.
Will your child be able to look after a pet?
Does your child have a tendency to be violent with animals?
How much money will a pet cost the family- consider weekly food bills, vet bills, vaccinations, injuries or illnesses?
Does anyone in the family have allergies?
Who will be responsible for the pet? toilet duties, walking, playing, feeding?
Is your child extremely sensitive to loud barking?
Is your child easily agitated or extremely jealous? What if the new pet bonds most with one of the other siblings or parents?
How much time do I have to spend teaching and supervising my child while I train them on how to care for the pet?
Tip Toe Into Pet Ownership
It is a good idea to test out pet ownership before buying/adopting a family pet as it is a huge commitment.
You could try activities like taking your kids to a child zoo/petting zoo where they can interact with animals and see how they get on.
Maybe you have friends who have a pet. Observe how your child interacts with the animal and the other kids.
Some places have “fostering” options where you can foster an animal for a few weeks or a few months before you finally decide to go ahead an adopt.
Studies have shown that even those children who played with an animal for a short period either at a school, or a petting zoo or a friends house, had behavioural improvement immediately afterwards.
There are also specially trained “Autism Therapy Dogs”.
These dogs are trained to help improve the guardian’s communication skills, oversee his or her safety and can even serve as an ‘ice breaker’ in a social situation. These dogs also comfort their guardians during stressful moments, including when an individual with autism lashes out because others cannot understand what he or she is trying to convey.
Therapy dogs work in nursing homes, hospitals, occupational therapy centers and other healthcare facilities. These dogs are experts in calming patients during stressful medical procedures or therapy sessions. Therapy dogs are now fairly widely used in autism communities.
To learn more about where to find a therapy dog, check out Assistance Dogs International.
There are also dogs called “Service Dogs”. These dogs may assist an individual who has a hearing or visual impairment, a mobility problem, diabetes (to detect low or high blood sugar), anxiety, epilepsy (to detect a seizure) or a developmental disorder (including autism).
Autism service dogs can be trained to recognize and help de-escalate emotional meltdowns or to gently interrupt an individual displaying self-harming behaviors. For example, a service dog may respond to signs that indicate anxiety by gently laying across the individual’s lap.
A service dog trained for an individual with autism may accompany a child to his or her dentist, doctor visits, while traveling, shopping and/or attending school activities.
So, Which Is The Best Pet For An Autistic Child?
When choosing the best pet for an autistic child, you need to consider your child’s personality, needs and interests. Also the family’s budget, time and preference.
The types of animals that are used to assist children with autism vary. Dogs, cats, rabbits, fish, horses and even guinea pigs are being used to help people with ASDs live fuller lives.
Dogs can be well trained and are used widely in autism communities because of the special relationship and care they may take of their owner. Different breeds have natural tendencies to be more gentle, loving, happy and responsive. Check this out in depth before buying.
However, owning a dog is just like having another child. Dogs require constant care and attention. They should not be left alone for hours on end, day after day. They must be fed, watered and walked several times a day.
Cats have varying personalties. If your kids are allergic to animal hair, you can consider a hairless cat. Cats tend to be less loyal, and less friendly than dogs. There is a risk they will scratch or bite if provoked by rough play.
Cats can be delightful when they are happy to sit on your lap and be stroked. However, it is mostly on their terms and they can be quite aloof when they feel like it.
Most kids love and adore these small animals. They are easier to look after than a puppy dog and the ongoing costs are cheaper than a larger animal.
These small animals are normally quite placid and easy to care for.
They are quite happy to be held, patted, fed and played with.
But take care your child does not leave the cage open (which often happens!)
Fish are a great “starter pet”. Most just require a clean tank, some space to swim in and some food. However depending on the size of tank you get, it can still be quite expensive and require some maintenance.
Kids tend to engage less with fish as they cannot be held and patted. Also fish can die quite easily (especially if a child over feeds them!) which can be confusing or upsetting for your child.
Chickens can be a great family pet. They are fairly cheap to buy. Most breeds can be picked up and patted. They are easy to feed and look after in general.
Plus they may provide eggs for the whole family on a regular basis.
Of course, you would need a decent size back garden for the chicken coop. Then there are various fencing requirements to ensure the foxes and other predators do not get in.
But if you have the space, chickens can be a wonderful family pet.
Equine therapy is a valuable tool that is commonly promoted in autism communities as there are so many benefits to children and adults. Not only the bonding and empathy that develops between the horse and the rider. But also physical skills like balance, strength, posture and confidence.
Most families do not have the space or the budget for a horse. But there are several equine centers based around most countries like USA, UK, Australia or Canada. In some cases autism groups have scholarships or grants for equine therapy programs.
Or if you are based in farming communities, it is likely you may have horses or neighbors with horses you can go and help feed or ask if your children can help look after.
Prepare Your Autistic Child For The New Addition To The Family
If you decide to go ahead and get a family pet for your autistic child, make sure you take the time to talk to your child about when the pet will arrive, where it will live and sleep. Discuss who will look after it and educate them as much as possible beforehand to be gentle with the animal and be quiet around them. As many of you know all too well, many autistic children do NOT like changes to their routine.
Your child might benefit from pictures of the new animal. If they will have a few tasks to do with the new pet, draw up a checklist for these tasks, like filling up the water bowl, checking on the food etc etc
When the pet arrives, know that it will take some time for the pet to get used to its new environment as well as your child to get used to this new being in their home. Take the time to demonstrate lovingly how to look after it, pick it up without hurting it and check its daily needs.
Take the time to supervise your child with the new pet to ensure there are no mishaps in the early days.
In most cases, your child will instantly love the new pet and bond very quickly. You may be surprised that you see a new side in your child that you have never seen before.
Pets can be an amazing addition to any family- especially one that has autistic children. Pets can provide nonjudgmental companionship, anxiety relief, social connection and a strong bond that autistic children may struggle to find with human interaction.
Owning a pet teaches vitally important lessons in caring for another, responsibility, gentleness and sharing love.
Which is the best pet for an autistic child depends very much on your child’s interests, your family budget, how much space you have available and how much free time you have. Remember it is a good idea to run a few “tests” before proceeding full time like having your child engage with a neighbor’s pet, taking them to a petting zoo or fostering first before making the full time commitment. Also by reading books about different animals, you may get a sense of which animals your child prefers (although dinosaurs are no longer available as a family pet option!)
There are many options of pets available for children to interact with and remember even within different species and breeds, there can be very different personalties. Take your time with this decision, do some research, see what is available in your area. For most families with autistic children, owning a pet is one of the best decisions they ever made.