By Dr. Becker
Recently a researcher at the University of Missouri conducted a small study of dog ownership in families of children with autism. The study was published in the Journal of Pediatric Nursing earlier in the year.1
What she discovered was that whether they owned a dog or not, parents of autistic children were very aware of the benefits of dogs for their kids. Some of the advantages the parents mentioned included stress relief, companionship, and helping children learn responsibility.
According to researcher and study author Gretchen Carlisle of the Research Center for Human-Animal Interaction at MU’s College of Veterinary Medicine:
“Children with autism spectrum disorders often struggle with interacting with others, which can make it difficult for them to form friendships.
“Children with autism may especially benefit from interacting with dogs, which can provide unconditional, nonjudgmental love and companionship to the children.”
The Overwhelming Majority of Autistic Children with Dogs Bond with Their Pets
For her study, Carlisle interviewed 70 parents of children with autism who were being seen at MU’s Thompson Center for Autism and Neurodevelopmental Disorders. Of the 70, about two-thirds owned dogs.
Of the dog owners, the overwhelming majority (94 percent) believed their autistic children were bonded to their pets, and many reported they consciously chose to get a dog to benefit their child with autism. Even the parents without dogs said their children with autism liked dogs.
Carlisle says dogs can help autistic kids by acting as “social lubricants.” In other words, dogs help children with autism – who often don’t connect well with other neighborhood children – break the ice with potential playmates. “The dogs can serve as bridges that help the children with autism communicate with their peers,” says Carlisle.
Selecting the Right Dog (or Other Pet) for an Autistic Child
Carlisle recommends that parents of children with autism take into account their child’s sensitivities when considering what type of dog might be a good match. For example, if a child with autism is sensitive to loud noises, a dog prone to barking is probably not a good match. A child with touch sensitivities might do better with a breed with a soft rather than rough coat.
Carlisle also recommends that autistic children be involved in selecting the dog. She believes that when the kids are involved in choosing a family dog, it’s more likely they will have positive experiences with the pet once it comes home.
Carlisle also suggests that other types of pets, for example, cats, rabbits or horses, may be more appropriate for certain autistic children depending on their individual sensitivities or interests.
Providing an Optimal Environment for Both the Child and the Pet
Adding a pet to a family with an autistic child has the potential to provide enormous benefits for everyone involved, whether you choose a shelter pet, an autism service dog, or some other animal. Of course, careful research, planning and preparation are needed to select the right pet and bring him safely and successfully into a family with an autistic child.
The goal should be to provide not only help for the child, but also a safe, loving forever home for the animal.