Pets offer a bevy of social benefits: they provide friendship, reduce loneliness and alleviate anxiety. It’s no surprise that animals, especially dogs bring positivity into our lives; humans began to domesticate dogs for hunting and companionship thousands of years ago, indicating our strong bond.
Socialization is often one of the biggest challenges for those with autism, especially children. However, significant research finds that spending time with dogs offers benefits for autistic persons, whether young or old. A study published in the Journal of Pediatric Nursing reports that of the two-thirds of the families surveyed who had dogs, 94 percent said their child bonded strongly with the pet. For families who didn’t have a dog as pets, 7 out of 10 parents indicated their child had a positive experience with the animal.
The study was led by research fellow Gretchen Carslile at The Research Center for Human-Animal Interaction (ReCHAI) in the University of Missouri’s College of Veterinary Medicine.
Carslile says, “Dogs can help children with autism by acting as a social lubricant.” She continues, “For example, children with autism may find it difficult to interact with other neighborhood children. If the children with autism invite their peers to play with their dogs, then the dogs can serve as bridges that help the children with autism communicate with their peers.”
Earlier research discovered that children with autism found that those with a family pet have better social skills. Other studies show how social issues in children with autism temporarily improve after a short interaction or play period with an animal versus a toy.
Of course, we’ve also seen how animals can help older people diagnosed with autism, too. A few years ago, news story went viral about an Arizona woman named Danielle Jacobs who suffered from Asperger syndrome which is on the autism spectrum. During a severe anxiety attack, Jacbos’ service dogs Samson helped calm her down. The video became popular due to mainstream awareness of how service dogs can truly help relieve anxiety attacks — and of course the strong bond between the two.
While pets do help increase socialization skills in those diagnosed with autism most of the time, it’s also important to consider each child’s specific sensitivities and family dynamics. If you do decide to introduce a dog into your family, there are a number of ways to do so safely and responsibly so as not to trigger more anxiety:
- Keep the new pet out of their room so their sleep. Nighttime visits can provoke anxiety
- Don’t involve them in caring for the animal until they feel comfortable
- Add jobs to care for the cat slowly and gradually
- Don’t ask them to pick up the animal. If they want to hold the pet, support them as they do so.
- Develop routines with the new animal. For instance, during bath time, the pet might sit on a towel on top of the toilet to keep them company.
- Supervise interactions with the new pet
- Involve the child with vet appointments only after the child has been acquainted with the pet for some time.
Service Dog or Therapy Dog?
Some parents may wonder whether a service or a therapy dog is the best option for their loved ones with autism.
A service dog undergoes extensive training and official certification to help with tasks for those that are challenging for a person with a disability. Every service dog is trained according to the needs of the person they assist. They can help people with a mobility hindrance, visual/hearing impairments, anxiety disorders or developmental disorders like autism. Autism dogs are great for assisting children in public to decrease their anxiety during medical visits, school activities, shopping or traveling. Many autism service dogs are trained to recognize and interrupt self-harming behaviors and help descalating emotional breakdowns. They may gently calm the child down by laying across his or her lap, for instance.
A therapy dog is trained to provide affection and comfort in therapeutic situations. They generally work in hospitals and other healthcare and mental health facilities, but they’ve also become very popular in the autism community because they have a calm, supportive ability to promote social interaction. They are extremely compassion and tolerant companions. If you choose a therapy dog, try selecting one from an accredited agency like any of the organizations listed on the Assistance Dogs International website and ask about the dog’s training and work with children or adults with autism.
With my charity, The Eddie Croman Foundation and my volunteer work at The Friendship Circle, I take an active interest in animal welfare and the happiness of children with autism. Interacting with both parties throughout my life, it makes complete sense that both animals and those with autism can support each other and grow loving, lasting bonds.