Man’s best friend can truly be your child’s best friend, according to some studies on the interaction between pets and autistic children.
Many parents are surprised to see the connection between their autistic child and animals. You might see it happening spontaneously — just when you are wondering how to help improve your child’s communication and social skills, you notice that he acts playful, happier, and more focused when around a friend’s pet. Or perhaps you have heard about the profound impact animals can have on some children with autism from another parent. Whatever prompts you, it may be time to introduce your autistic child to the wide world of animals.
Animal-Assisted Therapy for Autism
Being around household pets or having structured contact with animals can be a great addition to treatment for children with autism. There are many reports from both parents and clinicians that interacting with animals, formally called animal-assisted therapy, can offer both physical and emotional benefits to children with autism.
Animal-assisted therapy can be as simple as bringing a family pet into the household or as structured as programs that offer horseback riding or swimming with dolphins. Interaction with animals can help children with autism become more physically developed and improve their strength, coordination, and physical abilities. More importantly, many people derive much joy from their relationship with animals, which can help autistic children have a better sense of well-being and more self-confidence.
Animals can be amazing for children with autism, says Colleen Dolnick, a mother in Town and Country, Mo., who has a 10-year-old son with autism. “Animals can relate to these children. And these children, who have a hard time relating to peers, can really relate to animals.”
Animals and Autism: What the Research Says
While more research is still needed to determine the effects and confirm the benefits of animal-assisted therapy specifically for children with autism, a number of studies have suggested it could help. In the 1970s, psychologist and researcher David Nathanson began studying how interactions with dolphins affected children with disabilities. Nathanson found that being around dolphins could increase a child’s attention, enhance their thinking, help them learn faster, and retain information longer.
More recently, a study published in the Western Journal of Nursing Research looked at the effects of interacting with dogs on children with autism spectrum disorders. For the study, children were exposed to a ball, a stuffed dog, or a live dog under the supervision of a therapist. The children who played with the live dog were in a better mood and more aware of their surroundings than the children who were exposed to the ball or stuffed dog.
Trying Animal-Assisted Therapy With Your Autistic Child
If you are interested in animal-assisted therapy for your child, talk with your child’s doctor. There may be horseback-riding, dolphin-therapy, or other animal-therapy programs in your area that the doctor could refer you to.
If you are ready to make the commitment of bringing a pet into your home, you may want to consider a service dog that has been specially trained to work with children with autism. These dogs can be wonderful additions to families of autistic children and can even accompany children when they are away from home, such as at school, helping to keep them calm and comforted. For more information, contact an organization such as Autism Service Dogs of America.
Pets quickly become a treasured member of the family, offering love and companionship. And for the family that includes a child with autism, the rewards can be even greater.