Thursday, March 8, 2012

How Pets Help Children with Autism

By Langley Cornwell

Most people who share their life with a pet enjoy talking about how strong their connection is with their animal. They like to discuss how much they delight in spending time with their pet. They share stories that illustrate how well their dog or cat understands them. I’m one of those people; I can talk about the power of the connection I have with my dog and my cat for hours. I am completely convinced that living with pets is good for my mental and physical health. What’s more, I know living with a cat has helped my mother-in-law tremendously. My husband and I are amazed at the positive influence a little gray tabby cat from the local animal shelter has had on his 87-year-old mother’s life. It’s as if she’s awakened from a long sleep. She and ‘Skeet’ are a perfect match, and getting her this cat is one of the best things we’ve ever done for her. 

With this in mind, it’s not a far leap to believe that being around domesticated pets can be a helpful, positive and enriching experience for children with autism.

How animals help autistic children

First hand testimonials from parents and documented reports from clinicians confirm that interacting with animals (sometimes called animal-assisted therapy) offers emotional and physical benefits to autistic children. Structured programs like horseback riding or swimming with dolphins are beneficial, but the animal interaction doesn’t have to be that organized to be helpful. Something as simple as having a dog in the house can have a positive influence on a child with Autism Spectrum Disorder; it helps with their physical development by improving their coordination and strength. Additionally, a joyous relationship with an animal will help an autistic child develop more self-confidence and a deeper sense of well-being.

Colleen Dolnick, a Missouri mother who has a 10-year-old son with autism, tells Everyday Health: “Animals can be amazing for children with autism. Animals can relate to these children. And these children, who have a hard time relating to peers, can really relate to animals.”      

The research and documentation

According to Healing Thresholds, a website dedicated to connecting community and science to better understand autism, animals may provide improved social interaction and physical activity for autistic children. Alan M. Beck, director of the Center for the Human-Animal Bond at Purdue University’s School of Veterinary Medicine, believes that animals can provide companionship, promote speech, and stimulate an autistic child's sense of touch. He further believes that a dog can serve another important role in an autistic child’s life: the role of protector. For example, a service dog can keep an autistic child from walking away from his home or wandering into a busy road.

Additional research is required to absolutely confirm the benefits of animal-assisted therapy for children with autism, but there are many studies that suggest animals do help. Everyday Health cites a study from 1970s in which psychologist and researcher David Nathanson provides proof that interactions with dolphins positively affect children with autism. He documented cases where being around dolphins increased a child's attention span and enhanced their thinking. Furthermore, it helped them learn faster and helped them retain the information longer.

The Western Journal of Nursing Research recently published a study about the effects interacting with dogs had on children with autism spectrum disorders. In the study, children were separated into three groups. One group interacted with a stuffed dog, the second group interacted with a live dog, and the third group interacted with a rubber ball. The children in the second group were happier and more aware of their surroundings than the children who were exposed to the stuffed dog or the ball.

While there is a lack of strong science to confirm exactly what the effect is or how reliable it is, there is a mountain of anecdotal information available which suggests that dogs help children with Autism Spectrum Disorder. Additionally, there is evidence supporting the fact that having a pet in the home alleviates overall stress within the family.

To learn more

Animal-assisted therapy can come in many forms; horseback-riding and dolphin-therapy are two popular options. If you have a child with autism and would like to learn more about animal-assisted therapy, talk to your child’s doctor. He or she may be able to refer you to a program in your area.

To bring the therapy into your household, learn about the amazing capabilities of a service dog. The benefits of having a dog that has been specially trained to work with autistic children are tremendous. Aside from being a treasured companion and therapeutic friend, the dog can watch over your child when they are away from the house, offering them comfort and reassurance. 

If you’ve heard of animals helping a child with autism, please share it in the comment section below. For more information about specially trained service dogs, contact Autism Service Dogs of America or a similar organization.

Photo by Wilsonbentos

Read more articles by Langley Cornwell


  1. Wonderful article>

    As with all children who interact with their pets, parental supervision and guidance is sometimes necessary.

    Here is a document on Autistic Children and their pets, that I put together with the help and permission of a Yahoo Group of Humane Educators.

  2. Thanks for the article! After 19 years of volunteering with my certified/registered therapy dogs, it is amazing all the ways animals are able to help rehab patients move toward and recover to the level for them (brain trauma, spinal injuries, stroke), as well as Children's Hospital, Library programs for children with reading problems, disadvantaged children,and even a special program for children with Autism and the entire family.

    The program was inspired by an 11 year old who had a Dr. telling his parents to give up teaching him to read due to his Autism. The mom brought him to our reading programming, where he petted his first dog (typically afraid of his shaking hands), made eye contact with my Adam, went home and began to make eye contact with everyone at home, continuing to do so. The best part is that he read to Adam and his mom told me that he was at 5th grade reading level! They got him his own dog and he continued to read and improve!

    Our dogs will never achieve all they are capable because they wait in us to provide the guidance.

    Jackson, Mississippi area

  3. I have not had any experience or know anything about animals and Autistic children but I do know that horseback riding is very good for them. I was a part of a handicapped riding program for a short while. Great post.

  4. It's amazing, isn't it? I've seen autistic children who were interacted very minimally with humans TRANSFORMED when they interact with therapy dogs. Terrific article!

  5. I have seen a TV program about this and it was truly amazing! Something about the non threatening socialising they do. Brilliant!


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