How Pets Can Make a Huge Difference for Children with Autism

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Photo: PetSmart

Billy didn’t choose to see, feel and process the world differently. He just does. But having his therapy dog with him helps him stay calm, learn to read and protects him from harm. He doesn’t know how that works (and neither do we), it just does.

According to the National Institute of Mental Health, Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) affects communication and behavior, and symptoms typically begin within the first two years of life. ASD manifests in children in many ways that set them apart. Avoidance of eye-contact, lack of attempts at social contact with other people, and abnormal responses to other people’s emotional displays are all hallmarks of the disorder. Since signs of ASD first appear in childhood, early intervention is one of the most successful ways to help kids learn the skills needed to integrate as much as possible in mainstream society.

While there is no cure for autism, there are treatments available to alleviate or control the symptoms. Primary therapies involve ways to identify, improve and reinforce positive social behaviors and reduce negative behaviors. Essentially, therapists help children learn what is intuitive for most of us by teaching specific social skills and the perspective of others. Some of the most promising of these treatments involve pets.

In a 2017 study by the Human-Animal Bond Research Institute (HABRI) and Green Chimneys examining the effectiveness of an animal-assisted social skills intervention for children with ASD, research found “the inclusion of dogs in social skills training was more effective than traditional programs.” In the presence of a furry companion, participants “exhibited a greater level of change in social skills, fewer restricted and repetitive behaviors and decreased feelings of isolation and depression.”

While the healing power of pets is evident to some of us, there is a growing body of scientific research reinforcing this belief. For example, recent research has shown that newborns who live with cats have a lower risk of childhood asthma, pneumonia and bronchiolitis, and research finds the interaction with pets can reduce anxiety, ease blood pressure and heart rate, and offset feelings of depression. In the case of ASD therapy, it isn’t fully clear why animals incorporated into therapy seems to be effective, but there are some theories.

One theory is since human faces are very expressive, kids with ASD become easily overwhelmed with all the cues. It’s like trying to learn a foreign language with someone who speaks really, really fast.  When you can’t keep up, it’s easy to get frustrated. Especially when that person can’t seem to understand why it’s taking you so long and expresses any kind of impatience. Animals’ faces are less expressive, and pets simply don’t get impatient, at least not with reading. My daughters Lily (age 8) and Ivy (age 6) report that our dog Lucy is always calm during reading, and Lucy does not correct pronunciation mistakes; a pet is a source of love without judgement, which may help build confidence and trust.

And lastly, it’s not just the child with ASD that benefits from having either service or therapy animals available. In a separate HABRI-funded study examining the effects of pet dogs on families with children with ASD, results showed improvement in family function and a reduction in parent-child dysfunctional interactions of families with a dog. Siblings, parents and caregivers all receive the unconditional love and acceptance of the animals, which lead to documented lower levels of stress and fewer family crises. The amazing and magical power of the human-animal bond helps not only those they directly touch, but all those around them as well.

Investing in the healing power of pets in local institutions means investing in the mental and emotional wellbeing of children experiencing ASD and their caregivers. Ask your child’s doctor or therapist how they can benefit from animal-assisted therapy.