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Do Pets Help With Social Skills in Autism?

April 29, 2024

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, 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 struggles with social skills, you might want to consider getting them a paw friend.

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When should you welcome a pet into your family?

When should you first introduce a pet into your family? Research suggests that children who’ve had a pet since birth don’t seem notably different from those who got a pet when they started kindergarten.

Interestingly, both groups showed improvements in sharing and comforting others in distress. What’s even more intriguing is that these changes didn’t seem linked to IQ.

All children, regardless of where they fall on the developmental spectrum, might benefit from interacting with a pet.

Another study from Australia found that students were more likely to engage with their peers while playing with a guinea pig instead of toys.

Those with the pet showed increased interaction, including:

  • eye contact,
  • conversation,
  • smiles,
  • laughter, and
  • physical contact.

Which pet should you get for your autistic child?

If you’re getting a pet to help your autistic child with their social skills, it doesn’t have to be a cat or dog. You could get them a guinea pig or a rabbit.

A young boy feeding his pet rabbit https://www.autismparentingmagazine.com/pets-and-social-skillsmake-a-connection/

You can get them any type of pet with whom they can have physical interaction and an emotional bond. Something they can hold, pet, and connect with or fit 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 your child actually likes their furry friend. 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 gravitates 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.

Other benefits of pets for autism

The benefits of pets for children with autism extend beyond social interaction. For instance, a pet could also help address sensory tactile issues commonly experienced by some children on the spectrum.

Many find calming benefits from petting something soft. In my experience working with students, I’ve observed how various tactile materials, such as microsuede or soft fur, can aid in focusing during class.

Combining the soothing sensation of these materials with interactive pet interaction has shown amazing potential in helping children develop positive social skills.

This approach not only provides comfort but also fosters a supportive environment for learning and social growth.


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Pets and social skills

Your child, no matter where they fall on the spectrum, could improve social skills just by introducing a pet! Whether it’s a dog, a cat, a guinea pig, or a unique paw friend your child loves – you’ll be amazed at how fast they bond.

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. Listen to your little one and provide them with a companion that can make all the difference in their lives.

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

FAQs

Q: How do pets help with social skills?

A: Pets can enhance social skills by providing opportunities for interaction and bonding, fostering empathy and communication skills through caregiving and companionship experiences. Caring for a pet often increases socialization with other pet owners during activities like walking or attending pet-related events.

Q: Does having pets help with mental health?

A: Many studies suggest that having pets can positively impact mental health by reducing stress, providing companionship, and increasing opportunities for physical activity, but individual experiences may vary depending on factors such as the type of pet and the person’s circumstances.

Q: Do autistic people struggle with pets?

A: Autistic individuals may find certain aspects of pet ownership challenging due to sensory sensitivities or difficulties with social interaction, but many also form strong bonds with animals and find comfort in their companionship. Like anyone, the experience varies greatly depending on the individual and the specific characteristics of the pet.

References:

Amy Johnson, Laura Bruneau, Chapter 11 – Pets and Relationships: How Animals Help Us Understand Ourselves and Our Connections With Others, Clinician’s Guide to Treating Companion Animal Issues, Academic Press, 2019, ISBN 9780128129623, https://doi.org/10.1016/B978-0-12-812962-3.00011-3 

Gretchen K. Carlisle, Rebecca A. Johnson, Ze Wang, Jessica Bibbo, Nancy Cheak-Zamora, Leslie A. Lyons, Exploratory Study of Cat Adoption in Families of Children with Autism: Impact on Children’s Social Skills and Anxiety, Journal of Pediatric Nursing, Volume 58, 2021, ISSN 0882-5963, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.pedn.2020.11.011 

Carlisle, G.K. The Social Skills and Attachment to Dogs of Children with Autism Spectrum Disorder. J Autism Dev Disord 45, 1137–1145 (2015). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10803-014-2267-7 

Carlisle, Gretchen. (2013). Pet Dog Ownership Decisions for Parents of Children With Autism Spectrum Disorder. Journal of pediatric nursing. 29. 10.1016/j.pedn.2013.09.005. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/258252063_Pet_Dog_Ownership_Decisions_for_Parents_of_Children_With_Autism_Spectrum_Disorder

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