Pets and Animal Therapy for Children with Autism
Animal-assisted and pet therapies are among many different types of therapies available for children with autism.
They are a great option because they are risk-free and can be effectively combined with other forms of autism treatment.
Here’s everything you need to know about choosing animal therapy for your autistic child.
How Can a Pet Help a Child with Autism?
Numerous studies have shown that owning and interacting with pets is highly beneficial for children with autism. Pets can help children cope with anxiety, build communication skills, and socialize with others. Even children who spend only short amounts of time in the presence of an animal can see temporary improvement of some symptoms of autism.
Pets can benefit autistic children in several different ways, such as:
Looking after a pet can help children with autism combat loneliness. Pets are easy to interact with, they provide companionship, as well as unconditional love and affection.
Increase social behavior
Many kids with autism experience difficulties in connecting with others. Owning a pet brings about many socializing opportunities. What’s more, taking care of a pet can teach your child about treating others kindly, displaying gentle behavior, and compassion.
Improve communication skills
Many autistic kids with impaired communication skills speak more frequently when playing with their pets. Pets are also great companions for children who communicate non-verbally, as they will find other ways to interact and create a strong bond with the animal.
Help deal with stress and anxiety
The presence of a pet offers a sense of security to autistic kids. A pet may help lower stress and anxiety, improving the child’s self esteem and overall well-being.
Improve cognitive and emotional skills
Having a pet promotes positive feelings of care, love, and empathy in children with autism. Studies show that the longer they own a pet, the more their cognitive and emotional skills increase.
Offer sensory support
Pets offer invaluable support for autistic children with sensory needs. For example, the reassuring pressure of a dog’s head on a child’s lap can help them remain calm in a stressful situation.
Involving your child with autism in the training and daily care of a pet teaches responsibility, effective task management, and helps boost the child’s self-esteem.
Strengthen family bonds
Research has demonstrated that having a pet may reduce stress and create stronger bonds between parents and children with autism.
What Is the Best Pet for an Autistic Child?
When considering a pet for a child on the autism spectrum, the first animal that comes to mind is often a dog. However, dogs are not a suitable choice for all autistic kids. The good news is, almost any kind of animal can provide the emotional, physical, or social support that your child needs.
There are a few things to consider before you choose a pet for your child, including how severe their autism is, what type of support they need, and most importantly, what kind of animal they prefer.
You should keep in mind that reptiles, birds, and fish are somewhat less suitable for children with autism since they can’t provide the type of interactions that build skills. Hamsters are also not ideal pets for autistic kids, as they move fast and can get angry and aggressive when disturbed.
Dogs are wonderful pets for children with autism. They provide invaluable companionship and can help your child build confidence and social skills.
However, dogs are expensive to care for and demand significant time commitment. Some autistic children find dogs intimidating and unpredictable, and highly active breeds might trigger sensory overload.
Contrary to dogs who have an intense stare, cats tend to quickly avert their gaze, which may feel more comfortable for autistic children who struggle with eye contact. Cats have a soothing presence, are quiet, and are well suited for children with sensory issues. On the other hand, some cats may show aggression toward children with autism.
If your child is afraid of dogs, a rabbit may be a great alternative. Rabbits are safe, non-threatening, and soothing to watch and pet. Unlike dogs, they don’t require extensive care or treatment.
At the same time, it’s important to keep in mind that rabbits are social animals and prefer to have other rabbits as companions in addition to human interaction.
Just like rabbits, guinea pigs are gentle and low-maintenance pets. Children with autism often become more cheerful and talkative when they are in the presence of guinea pigs, they make eye contact more frequently, and interact better with others. In addition, guinea pigs have a longer lifespan than other small pets and can live for up to seven years.
Rats are extremely social and intelligent pets. They are curious and playful and love interacting with children. On the downside, they like to stay close to their owners for hours on end and require a great commitment of time and attention.
Animal Therapies Available for Autistic Children
Animal-assisted therapies are supplemental treatments often used in combination with applied behavior analysis (ABA) and other therapies for children with autism. Animal therapies use emotional support animals, service animals, and specialized therapy animals. These animals receive formal training and are certified by licensed professional trainers and therapists.
A service animal, usually a dog, offers emotional support to a child with autism. For example, dogs can be trained to apply weighted pressure when a child is distressed, use their body as a blocker to prevent the child from hurting themselves, and help them deal with other stressful situations.
Because service animals are considered to be a form of medical support, you may be able to get a prescription from your child’s physician or therapist. Service dogs are allowed in most public places.
Therapy animals, such as cats, dogs, guinea pigs, parrots, horses, and many other animals can help your child with autism build social communication skills and manage their emotions. Therapy animals are also used to improve play skills and support positive social interactions with peers.
Emotional support animals
Emotional support animals are often pets, such as a dog, a cat, a potbelly pig, or a miniature pony. They make it easier for children with autism to manage stressful situations at school, during medical interventions, or travel. Unlike service animals, they are not trained to perform specific tasks.
Even if your child with autism enjoys being around animals, they may not be suited for having a pet that demands attention and care. In this case, you may consider animal-assisted therapy, such as hippotherapy.
Hippotherapy or equestrian therapy is therapeutic horseback riding and horse care. Some children with autism may find horses intimidating, but those who enjoy the experience will largely benefit from this type of therapy. Here are some ways in which hippotherapy may help your child:
- Many children with autism have low muscle tone and sitting on horseback can improve their physical strength.
- Guiding and talking to a horse can enhance your child’s social communication skills. In addition, hippotherapy is shown to have a positive impact on the understanding of spoken language and social cognition.
- Equestrian therapy can reduce irritability in children with autism.