How Can Pets Help Autistic Children?
Finding out that your child is autistic is a big moment in any family's life. For some, there may be concerns around what this could mean for the future. There may also be a sense of relief that comes with a diagnosis, which can allow families to access the support they need. No matter how you feel about it, your job is to navigate what is best for your child and determine how you can most effectively support them.
Pets are an integral part of any animal-loving family. They give unconditional love and affection and make a valuable friend for children and adults alike. But they can be particularly beneficial for neurodiverse children, helping them feel safe and supported, and the best version of themselves.
Here, we take a look at how pets can help autistic children in their day-to-day lives.
Reduce anxiety for kids on the spectrum
Pets can be constant companions—which can be valuable for children who may struggle with anxiety caused by new situations. Studies have found that pets are a calming influence—stroking an animal for even 15 minutes has been shown to have a positive effect. They can also help the child focus on their furry friend rather than what is going on around them, which acts as a type of stress-reducing mindfulness exercise.
This doesn't mean that you have to get a dog, either—even small animals like guinea pigs have the same effect, although they are a little harder to take out and about. However, dogs can be trained with a range of comforting techniques, such as licking the child, and leaning on them as a calming and grounding technique. There are several organizations out there that can help connect you with a specifically trained autism companion dog, which may be useful if you think your child will need a dog with them all the time.
Enhance the social skills of neurodiverse children
Children with autism may find it difficult to enter social situations, but pets can help give them the confidence to take the first step. Animals don't judge you, and so they can be very reassuring in potentially scary situations.
Again, this effect happens quickly. Children who played with a pet for just 10 minutes are more likely to introduce themselves, ask questions and respond in a group setting. Children may feel like their pet is supporting them, so they can be less afraid and, of course, the physical reassurance of being able to touch an animal is helpful, too.
Autism companion pets facilitate relationship-building
Many children have imaginary friends, and a pet serves the same purpose, except that they're really there. Children may find it easier to confide their feelings to someone who doesn't talk back, and this helps build trust and connection.
Having a pet can benefit your entire family as your child may be more open to talking if their pet is the focus. It may even mean that they're happier leaving the house, which can open up opportunities for you to enjoy days out together, reducing the stress on everyone involved.
Pets can help your child adjust to the world around them, and teach them valuable skills around caring for another creature. Just make sure that you remember to introduce the pet gently, so that both your child and the animal has time to relax and get used to the new situation.
If you don't have the ability to have a pet yourself, why not see if you and your child can walk a dog for a friend or family member, or find a place to volunteer? You'll still be able to benefit from the joy they'll bring to your lives.
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