A Pet-scription for Autism

Four ways a child with autism may benefit from having a pet.

Occupational therapy, speech therapy, applied behavior analysis therapy, special diets, and supplements. If your child has autism, chances are you’ve tried numerous types of therapies and treatments in hopes of lessening his or her symptoms. But have you considered pet therapy?

Autism causes difficulty with social skills and communication. Since there’s no one treatment that’s effective for every child, families must work with a range of medical professionals to find what treatment is most effective for their specific situations.

A treatment that has gained popularity in recent years is pet therapy, also known as animal-assisted therapy. Cats, birds, horses, hamsters, guinea pigs, and even dolphins are candidates, but the most preferred pet for a child with autism is man’s best friend, a dog. They’re trainable, lovable, and easily cared for compared to other animals.

Here are four ways caring for a pet can benefit a child with autism.

Social Perks

Kids with autism who’ve had a pet from an early age show greater social skills than those who’ve never had a pet. Having a pet around during social situations has been shown to lessen the stress of kids with autism. And who doesn’t love a cute pet? As others show affection and interest toward the pet, a child with autism can focus on the pet rather than interaction with others. He may not be able to relate to his peers, but the autistic child can connect with his pet in a meaningful way.

A child with autism may be able to teach a pet new tricks through commands, gestures, and rewards. Teaching a pet to sit, stay, fetch, or roll can help encourage a child to use effective communication skills.

The special bond that forms between a child and his pet fosters friendship, understanding, and empathy. Pets don’t notice the repetitive movements, strange sounds, or unusual behaviors of a child with autism. Unlike peers, a pet loves unconditionally and without judgment, giving a child a deep sense of companionship.

Physical Perks

Caring for a pet of any kind involves feeding, bathing, and playing with them. Learning to ride a horse, play catch with a dog, or clean a hamster cage are all activities that can help a child with autism become physically stronger and more coordinated.

Mental Perks

As a child interacts with and cares for a pet, she may learn new skills and gain a greater attention span. A child may also develop a greater sense of responsibility and accountability as he feeds, waters, or bathes the pet. It may start small, but it can carry over into other areas of life, especially for children with autism.

Emotional Perks

Having a special pet that’s all her own to love and care for provides a child with joy and greater self-confidence. Spending time with a friendly pet can help improve a child’s mood and outlook on life. When a child is feeling sad, anxious, or out of sorts, cuddling or playing with a pet can bring comfort. Sleeping near a pet who’s calm and sleepy can even help a child relax and self-soothe, important skills for those with autism.