You have a child with autism and are wondering: Should I get a pet? Would a dog be the right choice? Of course, there is no right answer to this question. Dogs make wonderful companions and other animals, such as cats, guinea pigs or even snakes, provide benefits. But the decision of whether or not to bring an animal into your home is a personal one.
Dogs and Children with Autism
A recent study showed that dogs provide unconditional love and acceptance and can help children with autism. According to the study, 94 percent of parents with children of autism who owned dogs said that their child bonded with the dog. Because children with autism have difficulty socializing and making friends, the dog provided companionship, stress relief and acceptance. Besides these benefits, dogs can help a child reach out to other children. Walking a dog or playing out in the yard with a dog can be an “invitation” for other children to join in.
But dogs aren’t for every child and just as every child with autism is unique, so are their relationships with animals. If your child has sensory difficulties, he or she might have problem with the dog barking, jumping, licking or even how rough the fur is. Take your child’s sensory difficulties into consideration and include your child in choosing the dog.
There are also organizations that train dogs specifically to work with children with autism. You can visit the websites North Star Dogs or Canine Companions for Independence for more information on these type of programs.
If you aren’t interested in a dog, other animals still encourage social interaction. A study completed at the University of Queensland in Australia found that children interacted with one another more often when an animal was present. The study looked at 99 children, some had autism and some did not. The children were monitored at two times - one when they played with toys and one when they interacted with two guinea pigs. When the children interacted with the animals, the children with autism were more likely to talk and look at their classmates. They also were more open to other children coming up and talking to them.
Different animals offer different benefits. Cats, while very independent, also like to play, enjoy attention and offer companionship. Owning a pet has been shown to reduce anxiety and build self-confidence. A pet can provide sensory experiences. Some children with autism enjoy hippotherapy, which is therapy with a horse. While this isn’t necessarily considered a pet, interacting with the horses has been found beneficial to children with autism.
Choosing a Pet
Deciding what pet is best for your family is a personal decision and one that needs to match your needs and lifestyle. Some of the things to take into consideration:
- Activity level - for families that enjoy many outdoor activities, a dog might work well. If your family spends most of the time indoors, a cat or guinea pig might work better.
- Home environment - if you like your house neat and tidy, look for an animal that doesn’t shed much or animals that are confined to cages, such as guinea pigs, birds, reptiles or hamsters.
- Temperament - different breeds of dogs and cats have different temperaments. Do some research on breeds you are interested in to find out which have a temperament that would complement your family, especially your child.
- Time commitment - consider your daily schedule. Dogs require a large time commitment, they must be walked, fed at certain times but at the same time provide structure to your day, something children with autism often need. Other pets, such as cats, don’t require such intense care. You will need to determine how much time you want to commit to caring for your pet.
Keep in mind that owning a pet is not the best option for everyone. Don’t force having a pet if you are not willing or able to keep up with the expense, attention, time and responsibility of owning a pet. Remember, too, that not all children will benefit from having a pet. Each child is different. Weigh your own child’s needs to determine if a pet is best for your home.
‘Animals and Autism: Pets Help with ASD,” 2013, Feb. 27, Catherine Pearson, The Huffington Post