Getting a pet when you have a child with Autism – Yes or No?

Owning a pet and interacting with animals can have major benefits. An animal (a dog, a cat, a hamster, a bunny, etc) can provide sweet companionship, friendship, reduce loneliness and anxiety. It can be easier for a child with autism to interact with an animal because an animal is nonverbal and non-judgemental. Owning a pet can also foster responsibility in children, teach them simple life skills and reactions.

Before choosing the pet for your child,  make sure they are old enough to understand that the animal is a living organism and no harm should be done to the pet. Small pets like hamsters and mouses tend to be more likely to bite the owner, so avoid getting pets that can cause also serious harm to your child.

People with autism create connections to animals that are unique in their own way. Non-verbal communication and interaction based on body language is a way to create other magical links between the parties. 

Professor of animal science Dr. Temple Grandin may be able to shed some light on this connection between animals and children on the autistic spectrum.

 In her paper ‘Thinking the Way Animals Do’, she describes how her autism makes it easier for her to understand animals, as her thinking processes are much like an animal’s. What does it mean? It means that an autistic person has a better understanding of the animal than anybody else. The friendship between an animal and a child is beautiful and children on the autistic spectrum have a protective connection to the pet they have. Social skills, taking care of the animal, and responsibility is taught through interaction with the animal.

She explains how she often thinks in images, not language, much like an animal does. A horse trainer once told her that horses don’t think, they just make associations, to which she concluded that if making associations isn’t thinking, then she does not think either.

 It is true that those with autism often make strong associations to negative events, developing strange fears; the color red, for example, is commonly associated with negative feelings for those with autism. Relationships built with the animal and easy methods of associations with the animal behavior can teach the child how to react in different situations.

Be aware, that if the pet may behave differently in the company with other people, animals sense the situations and can also adjust their behavior with special needs kids.

Dogs are usually the first choice when parents start to choose pets for their child. Dogs are considered owner-serving animals and their love for their owner is greater than the love for themself. So a dog usually chooses their person from the family and is committed to serving them. That’s why service dogs are one of the most common companions to a special needs person. They are also easy to train considering their breed.

Kids benefit strongly from the activities they do together. Playtime is something those two enjoy most.

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By Jaan Kelder

Jaan Kelder, sündinud 10. novembril 1971, on eesti ajakirjanik; on lõpetanud Tartu Ülikooli ajakirjanduse erialal 1994. aastal.