Raising an autistic child is a 24-hour job that can be overwhelming and incredibly stressful. For many parents, the idea of bringing a pet into the home seems like an impossible notion that will only add complications, chaos, and the burden of unnecessary responsibility. The right pet, however, can reduce stress for the whole family and have a therapeutic effect on the child with autism.
A recent study from the University of Missouri concluded that autistic children who have difficulty interacting with people are often able to form emotional bonds with animals. These relationships can provide unconditional, non-judgmental love and companionship that may pave the way for interpersonal bonding, as well as stress relief, affection, and a key ingredient for a happy childhood- fun.
“Dogs can help children with autism by acting as a social lubricant,” explained Gretchen Carlisle, study leader and research fellow at the university’s Research Center for Human-Animal Interaction. “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.”
If you aren’t interested in having a dog, many other animals encourage social interaction. Many people find that their autistic children respond incredibly well to cats, as they are less aggressive with their affections and form deeply individual bonds.
Choosing the right pet for your family is a personal decision and shouldn’t be taken lightly. You should take your needs and lifestyle into consideration. If your family enjoys an active lifestyle and want to include your pet in outdoor activities, a dog would be a great choice. If most of your time is spent indoors or you don’t have time to walk a dog several times a day, consider a cat, rodent, or reptile. If your child or anyone else in the home has allergies, be sure to seek out a breed that is hypoallergenic. Do research on different breed temperaments and visit breeders and animal shelters with your child before you bring one home.
Just like children, every animal is different. Not every child will benefit from having a pet, but when a child with autism forms an emotional bond with an animal, it can reduce stress for the whole family.