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Autism and Pets

Posted on April 06 2016

John Muir said, “Any glimpse into the life of an animal quickens our own and makes it so much the larger and better in every way.” If you've ever learned something new by quietly resting on the porch next to your furry friend, who is simply content with just your presence, you probably would agree.

What's interesting is that scientific studies are beginning to show strong evidence that animals do indeed add vitality to those who need it most – specifically, to children with autism. Autism is a disorder that affects many people differently and is often quite misunderstood. It is a disorder that affects the ability of children to socialize easily. While many on the autism spectrum have great talents in certain areas like art or music, a common trait is that autistic children are somewhat closed off from the rest of the world. Attempts to “open up” an autistic child to the family and friends around them are often met with disappointing results.

Researchers have recently discovered that interacting with animals can sometimes produce wonderful results in to increasing the communication ability of autistic children. What has greatly impressed researchers is the fact that the animals who have brought such improvement in the lives of these autistic children aren't necessarily trained to provide any type of therapy. Rather, the animals have simply “been themselves” and have succeeded in drawing out their young companions.

According to Dr. Melissa Nishawala, a researcher with the Child Study Center from New York University's Langone Medical Center, “Anecdotally, we can say many kids with autism are interested in animals. They seem to have a real affinity for them; they often enjoy their company and they may be described by their parents as much calmer, more engaged and happier in general when they’re around an animal.”

Dr. Gretchen Carlisle, a research fellow with the Research Center for Human-Animal Interaction at the University of Missouri's College of Veterinary Medicine, conducted a study to explore how influential animals can be for autistic children. “Children with autism may especially benefit from interacting with dogs, which can provide unconditional, nonjudgmental love and companionship,” she said.

“When I compared the social skills of children with autism who lived with dogs to those who did not, the children with dogs appeared to have greater social skills,” Carlisle said, noting what many parents have already discovered: Pets can have a positive influence on children when other methods have failed.

“The data revealed that children with any kind of pet in the home reported being more likely to engage in behaviors such as introducing themselves, asking for information or responding to other people’s questions. These kinds of social skills typically are difficult for kids with autism, but this study showed children’s assertiveness was greater if they lived with a pet.”

“When children with disabilities take their service dogs out in public, other kids stop and engage. Kids with autism don’t always readily engage with others, but if there’s a pet in the home that the child is bonded with and a visitor starts asking about the pet, the child may be more likely to respond.”

- Dr. Gretchen Carlisle

As parents of autistic children explore deeper into the possibility of bringing a pet into the family, they need to use careful judgment regarding their child's specific tendencies. For some children, having an excitable, loud animal in the house could be anything but therapeutic. “Bringing a dog into any family is a big step, but for families of children with autism, getting a dog should be a decision that’s taken very seriously,” warns Carlisle.

For parents who aren't sure that a dog would bring a positive effect, it's important to understand that other pets can have a wonderful impact without leaving such a big “pawprint.”

Dr. Carlisle said, “Finding children with autism to be more strongly bonded to smaller dogs, and parents reporting strong attachments between their children and other pets, such as rabbits or cats, serves as evidence that other types of pets could benefit children with autism as well.

“Dogs are good for some kids with autism but might not be the best option for every child. Kids with autism are highly individual and unique, so some other animals may provide just as much benefit as dogs. Though parents may assume having dogs are best to help their children, my data show greater social skills for children with autism who live in homes with any type of pet.”

Regardless what type of pet is chosen, these results are a powerful tribute to the ability of all God's creatures, great and small, to bring healing to hurting people of all ages.


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