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Pets and Social Skills…Make a Connection!

July 24, 2019


Many studies have been conducted on the positive effect a pet can have on your health.  A pet can be comforting if you are upset, they can lighten your mood as you play with them, and of course you have their companionship and unconditional love. Studies have also shown that pets can help improve social skills for children on the spectrum.  If your child is struggling with social skills you might want to consider getting them a pet.

autism pets and social skills

Many studies have been conducted on the positive effect a pet can have on your health.  A pet can be comforting if you are upset, they can lighten your mood as you play with them, and of course you have their companionship and unconditional love. Studies have also shown that pets can help improve social skills for children on the spectrum.  If your child is struggling with social skills you might want to consider getting them a pet.

An article published in Time suggests the key is when to introduce a pet into your family.  Children who grew up with a pet since birth didn’t show any significant difference compared to their peers who had a pet introduced around the time the child was entering kindergarten.  Those children showed improvement in sharing and comforting others in distress.  It’s interesting to note that the changes noticed in the children were not related to their IQ, which means that all children on the spectrum, no matter their level of functioning, may be able to benefit from interacting with a pet. (http://healthland.time.com/2012/08/02/pets-can-help-autistic-children-learn-to-share-and-comfort-others/).  Yet another study conducted in Australia showed that students were more likely to interact with their peers while playing with a guinea pig as opposed to toys.  The students with the pet showed more interaction including looking at faces, talking, smiling, laughing, and physical contact. (http://www.healthline.com/health-news/mental-animals-help-autistic-children-socialize-022713)

autism_boy_pet_dog

Let’s think about this for a minute.  Your child, no matter where they fall on the spectrum, could improve social skills just by introducing a pet!  It doesn’t have to be a cat or dog, you could get them a guinea pig or a rabbit.  Any type of pet they can have physical interaction and an emotional bond with.  Something they can hold, pet and connect with or something that fits into their interest.  I wouldn’t suggest getting your child a cat when they love fish.  Bringing a dog into the home when your child is terrified of dogs will not help…actually it could make things worse.  It’s important that the pet is something your child actually likes.

A pet could also help with sensory tactile issues.  Some children on the spectrum experience calming benefits from petting something soft.  I have personally used various swatches of materials with my students to help them focus in class.  Most liked the soft feel of micro suede or soft fur materials.  Combining the feel with something they can interact with has amazing potential to help them develop positive social skills.

I would suggest exposing your child to different types of animals to see what your child relates to before introducing the pet.  Maybe take a trip to the local rescue shelter or pet store and see how your child reacts to various animals.  You may think they would like a puppy and your child winds up gravitating toward the birds.  Also, if there are other siblings, you may want to specify that the pet is primarily for your special needs child so there are no power struggles about whose pet it is.

So if your child has been asking you for a puppy for the past six months…they may be just asking you to help them improve their social skills.

This article was featured in Issue 29 – Finding New Ways to Thrive

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