Man’s best friend can truly be your "Aspie’s" best friend, according to some studies on the interaction between pets and Aspergers (high-functioning autistic) kids.
Many moms and dads are surprised to see the connection between their youngster and pets. You might see it happening spontaneously — just when you are wondering how to help improve your child’s communication and social skills, you notice that he acts playful, happier, and more focused when around a friend's pet. Or perhaps you have heard about the profound impact pets can have on some Aspergers kids from another parent. Whatever prompts you, it may be time to introduce your Aspie to the world of pets.
Being around household pets or having structured contact with pets can be a great addition to treatment for kids with Aspergers. There are many reports from both parents and clinicians that interacting with pets, formally called animal-assisted therapy, can offer both physical and emotional benefits to these kids.
Animal-assisted therapy can be as simple as bringing a family pet into the household - or as structured as programs that offer horseback riding or swimming with dolphins. Interaction with pets can help Aspergers kids become more physically developed and improve their strength, coordination, and physical abilities. More importantly, many of these children derive much joy from their relationship with pets, which can help them have a better sense of well-being and more self-confidence. Pets can relate to Aspergers kids – and Aspergers kids (who have a hard time relating to peers) can really relate to pets.
While more research is still needed to determine the effects and confirm the benefits of animal-assisted therapy specifically for kids on the spectrum, a number of studies have suggested it can help. In the 1970s, researchers began studying how interactions with dolphins affected kids with Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD). They found that being around dolphins increased the children’s attention, enhanced their thinking, helped them learn faster – and retain information longer.
More recently, one study looked at the effects of ASD children interacting with dogs. For this particular study, kids were exposed to a ball, a stuffed dog, or a live dog under the supervision of a therapist. The kids who played with the live dog were in a better mood and more aware of their surroundings than the kids who were exposed to the ball or stuffed dog.
If you are interested in animal-assisted therapy for your Aspie, talk with your child’s doctor. There may be horseback-riding, dolphin-therapy, or other animal-therapy programs in your area that the doctor could refer you to.
If you are ready to make the commitment of bringing a pet into your home, you may want to consider a service dog that has been specially trained to work with ASD kids. These dogs can be wonderful additions to families and can even accompany kids when they are away from home (e.g., school), helping to keep them calm and comforted.
Pets quickly become a treasured member of the family, offering love and companionship. And for the family that includes an Aspergers boy or girl, the rewards can be even greater.