Many children will approach their parents in hopes of getting a pet. Children with autism are no different. Busy parents raising an autistic child may wonder why they would want to introduce an additional responsibility into their home while trying to juggle all of the needs of their child. Here are 11 ways adding a pet to your family can benefit your child with autism.
Earning the pet
When a child with autism desires a pet, he/she is showing the same desires as neurotypical children to be involved with an animal.
A wise parent will involve his/her autistic child in selecting the pet that best fits the child’s needs and the needs of the family.
If there is a cost involved with getting the pet, your child can be encouraged to raise the money and assist in purchasing the pet. This will assist with him/her fully “buying-in” to the new responsibility of becoming a pet owner.
Increasing daily responsibility
As any parent knows, there is a lot of responsibility that comes with owning a pet, and your child can be directly involved. He/She can learn to feed the pet, clean up after it, ensure it stays healthy, etc. Visual schedules can be developed to help your child take care of the daily needs of his/her pets. Take a look at the example included with this article.
Many children with autism struggle to socialize with others. Of course, one of the biggest benefits of owning a pet is you are never alone and have companionship.
However, other people at school or in the community may see your child with his/her pet and go out of their way to approach him/her. This may help your child engage in a conversation around the topic of being a pet owner. Dog and cat lovers enjoy interacting with other dog and cat owners.
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It may be easier for your autistic child to begin a conversation around a topic he/she is comfortable with. The same can be said of children at school. When your child hears other children at school discussing their pets, he/she will be able to contribute meaningful dialogue to the conversation.
Developing a sense of comfort
Your child with autism may enjoy having a pet nearby. It may help reduce anxiety and give him/her a sense of companionship. Many children with pets show an increase in self-confidence as well.
Your child may reduce his/her level of isolation and begin to focus attention on his/her pet’s needs as opposed to his/her own needs. It can help him/her manage loneliness or depression. All children with autism can find comfort in a pet who demonstrates unconditional love for them.
Some children on the spectrum will simply enjoy a typical pet. Others may significantly benefit from having a pet become a therapy animal. Once their pet becomes a certified therapy animal, children with autism can begin to strengthen their self-advocacy skills by explaining to people at school, in stores, at theme parks, and other places why they have a therapy animal with them. They can explain what having autism means to them and how the therapy animal assists them.
Hygiene is a touchy issue to discuss with any child. However, the issue might be easier to discuss when it deals with the family pet. Children with autism can be taught how to keep their pet clean and healthy. It can be explained to them that most people want to deal with a cat or dog that doesn’t smell bad.
Showing the child how to properly bathe the animal, comb its fur, use flea collars, and give it treats that keep its teeth strong and healthy can all become an avenue into discussing why it is important for the children to bathe daily, use deodorant, brush their teeth, etc.
Increasing community involvement
Having a pet may encourage your child to volunteer more in the community or be more actively engaged in school. He/She could gain permission from school personnel to bring his/her pet to school for show-and-tell and give an in-class presentation about his/her pet.
The skills he/she gains from caring for his/her own pet could be used to introduce him/her to volunteering in a local animal shelter or pet store. As he/she continues to work with animals, he/she may increase his/her level of empathy for them. This empathy can be transferred from animals and could be generalized to people.
Future career training
Many children who have pets growing up enter careers that involve working with animals. Your child with autism may be the same. There are many people who pay for others to take care of their pet if they have experience working with animals.
Your child might also be able to earn some extra cash by becoming a dog walker. You child may decide he/she wants to apply to have a part-time job at an animal shelter or go to university to study animal science to become a veterinarian.
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Involving your child in making decisions about the pet will help him/her feel empowered. He/She can help decide what kind of pet he/she wants, what to name the pet, what type of food the animal will need, how often the pet needs to be cleaned, when it should be walked, and where it should sleep in the home. All of this can help him/her become fully engaged in the process of owning a pet.
Interacting with the animal may increase your child’s level of physical activity. Dogs will need to be walked daily, and cats can be played with around the house, as can rabbits, ferrets, hamsters, guinea pigs, and gerbils. Outdoor animals such as ponies, pigs, and chickens can also provide vital exercise for your child with autism. If your child spends a lot of time indoors, the pet may encourage him/her to enjoy some fresh air.
Using social stories
Taking Care of My Dog
- Having a dog is a big responsibility.
- Every morning when I wake up, I need to remember to let my dog outside. That way he won`t make a mess in the house.
- Before I go to school, I need to give my dog food and water.
- I also need to leave my dog some toys to play with so he isn`t lonely.
- When I get home from school, my dog will be happy to see me.
- I will take my dog for a walk and play with him outside.
- If my dog gets dirty, I will give him a bath.
- I will feed him again at nighttime.
- I can be responsible by loving and taking care of my dog!
This article was featured in Issue 106 –Maintaining a Healthy Balance With ASD