Children on the spectrum who lived with dogs had higher levels of social competence than the kids who did not. In fact, children with any kind of pet in their home were more likely to demonstrate pro-social behaviors such as introducing themselves, asking questions or responding to other people's questions. These kinds of social competencies are difficult for kids with autism but for those with pets, they show greater levels of assertiveness.
Kids with both autism and dogs show a sharp drop in anxiety as well as social stress when playing with animals versus being engaged in other activities. Kids without autistic brains show a rise in anxiety when encountering animals mostly due to excitement.
It also made me think about the temperaments and typical behaviors of pets. Out of the typical household pets-dogs, cats, birds, fish, rodents, reptiles and yes, even spiders, certain breeds of dogs are likely to be unpredictable which can be unsettling for those on the autistic spectrum. Older dogs are more likely to have less volatility in their behavior, so that's another feature.
Cats are known for their independence and if your child has to work hard to get a cat's attention, this may not be a good fit...or it might be!
Temple Grandin, Ph.D., a famous woman with autism who conducted valuable research with farm animals and their welfare, believes that "a third of people with autism are unusually good with animals, about a third are terrible with animals, and a third, are about average in how they get along with other species". Sounds about right to me, so don't go running out to get a pet!
Another excellent resource is an organization known as HABRI, Human Animal Bond Research Institute, provides insight as to the relationship between humans and animals and how we can help one another.
Think about the additional ways an AAD can support a child with autism:
- Gives them sensory opportunities in terms of bathing and physically caring for their dogs such as brushing (use a Kong brush). The care activities involve handling the pet and being aware of the pressure they are using in their hands and with being aware of the animal's emotional state.
- Gives them opportunities to show affection by petting and stroking the animal.
- Gives them opportunities to practice "personal space" by walking around their pets and not intruding on them when, for example, they are eating or sleeping.
- Gives them opportunities to improve their strength, coordination and physical abilities.
- Gives them opportunities to experience joy, a sense of well-being and more self-confidence.
- Gives them opportunities to be responsible for something that's meaningful to them.
- Gives them opportunities to be less anxious and fearful around animals.
- Gives them opportunities to observe compassion and be part of that dynamic.
Dr. Grandin believes that animals think in pictures the way she does and this is how they make associations between information. She commented that the color red can invoke negative fears in those with autism.
- As with any service dog, can communicate to others that this child has different needs. They're less likely to misinterpret the child's behavior and they just might be more supportive, patient and kind.
- When the environment gets overwhelming, dogs are reassuring and can calmly redirect the child to them instead of the events in the setting.
- Reduces the chances of eloping...escaping from parents as the child can be tethered to the dog.
This can be a good thing! TTFN, Claudia
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