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For those of you still wondering whether to have a pet or not, you now have a very important reason to get one. A recent study conducted by the University of Missouri has confirmed that having a pet (like cats, small dogs or even a rabbit) may significantly improve the social and assertive skills of children with Autism. It has also been proven that the longer the interaction an Autistic child has with a pet, the more likely to be the improvement.
- Impaired social skills
- Communication & speech problems
- Specific learning disabilities
- Reduced motor skills
- Sensory processing disabilities
- Repetitive and (often) aggressive behavior
Having a pet often helps to reduce more than one of these symptoms. While some improvements are a direct result of owning a pet, other improvement areas may be a bit more subtle and an indirect manifestation of one of the direct improvements. Let us discuss each of them in a bit more detail:
How Pets can Help Social Interactions
For autistic children, getting involved and continued engagement in a conversation might be a challenge. Pets, in this case, act as a “social lubricant” or a conversation starter. When a guest at home asks an autistic kid about his/her pet, it is more likely that the child will respond with enthusiasm. A bit more discussion with the child on the same subject, and he or she will begin to feel comfortable with the social situation.
Dr. Carlisle, Professor from the University of Missouri, explains, “Upon comparing the social skills of autistic children who lived with pets to those who did not, the children with pets seemed to possess greater social skills. More importantly, however, the analysis revealed that they are more likely to engage in social gestures such as self-introduction, enquiring for information or being more responsive to people’s questions. Such social skills typically are a big challenge for autistic children, but our study showed their assertiveness was greater when they lived with a pet.”
Pets Improving Communication in Autistic Kids
Autistic kids find it hard to engage in meaningful conversations. Their level of communication is usually sub-par with children of similar ages, thereby resulting in their general lack of confidence. This further impacts them negatively as they become over-conscious and tend to cocoon themselves into their own world.
Owning a pet takes away that trepidation. They can easily engage in communication with their pet without the fear of being judged. Pets significantly improve their body language as well since the child is able to set his or her own pace while interpreting the pet’s feelings without the need to continuously catch up with human emotions.
Pets Help to Improve Sensory Skills as Well
Most children with autism will have some degree of sensory processing issues. Few therapists dispute that fact that “Play” is perhaps the most important therapy technique for kids with Autism. Simple exercises like Floortime playing can go a long way in opening circles. Pets like cats and (particularly) dogs are playful in nature. This allows the child, who is a sensory seeker, to participate in active play; thereby providing the necessary sensory input through everyday activities.
Pets Improving Motor Skills of Autistic Children
This is an indirect consequence (for the good) of playing with pets along with developing sensory skills. While playing with the pets, the motor skills of any child is bound to improve. Small activities, like running around in the yard with the dog, playing frisbee, feed the pet can go a long way in developing much needed motor skills. While normal children would eventually develop such skills regardless, playing with a pet is particularly helpful for an autistic child in order to simulate muscle movements, hand-eye & mind-body coordination.
What If I Can’t Afford a Pet?
At Deal With Autism, we highly recommend you get one. But, if for some reason, you can’t afford one (or in some countries units/apartments that have a strict No-Pet policy), there might still be a few options:
- Pay frequent visits to your local Zoo or nearby animal reserves
- Plan a farm-stay over your next long weekend
- Visit a pet shop or pet barn: Many pet stores allow you, child, to cuddle a pet or play with it for a while. In case they don’t, please explain your situation and the authorities may be happy to accommodate
- Download a virtual pet app: Last resort for some parents. There are quite a few apps available for iOS and Android that allows interaction with a virtual pet. For example, check out the free Talking Tom Cat app in our list of Top Apps for Autism
- Contact Us: We are there to help you! Based on your personal situation, we can recommend a few additional alternatives.