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The Benefits of "Therapy Pets" for Kids on the Autism Spectrum

Pets and kids with Asperger's or High-Functioning Autism (HFA) can be a great combination and give these children an opportunity to relate to another living being. Children with behavioral and social issues can be difficult to work with, and most of them have trouble trusting others. Dogs, cats, elephants, lizards, rabbits and horses can successfully be used in animal therapy (called Animal Assisted Therapy).

Animal Assisted Therapy provides an experience with an animal that is non-judgmental, gives affection unconditionally, and provides opportunities for physical and emotional therapy. This includes therapy for strengthening muscles through horseback riding, low-impact swimming with dolphins, and a boost of confidence with service dogs and companion dogs. These pets promote confidence and self-esteem while motivating children on the autism spectrum to interact and get stronger.

There are many cases in which kids with Asperger's and HFA have close relationship with special pets (e.g., dogs, cats, rabbits, etc.). The violent tendencies of "special needs" kids disappear while they play with the pet. Having a pet often promotes a healthy personality in kids, including trusting, respecting, contributing, self-confidence, commitment and responsibility. It also can teach these kids problem-solving skills, decision-making skills, language and social skills.

A meta-analysis found that animal-assisted therapy is associated with improving medical difficulties, behavioral problems, and emotional problems in kids on the spectrum. They also report the following improvements in:
  • Attention skills (i.e., paying attention, staying on task)
  • Leisure/recreation skills
  • Reducing anxiety
  • Reducing loneliness
  • Self-esteem
  • Verbal interactions between group members

The research into Animal Assisted Therapy is relatively new, and professionals believe more research is needed. However, there's a general consensus that “therapy pets” aid in the treatment of kids with Asperger's and HFA. As with other types of animal assisted therapy, the introduction of the animal seems to calm and soothe these kids. Often, they begin making eye contact with the animal first, then with people. Therapy usually results in these kids becoming more open – first with the pets, and then with people.

Moms and dads often bring a pet into the family to teach their child a sense of responsibility, or perhaps to provide him/her with a playmate. But these kids often learn something more fundamental about themselves and the world: how to empathize with others, how to understand subtle feelings, and how to look at the world from a vastly different perspective. The youngster learns how the world and living things are interconnected.

On the emotional level, pets can teach autistic kids many things, including:
  • Communication: The kids learn the subtle cues their pets give them to indicate their feelings. They can later apply this lesson to human interaction because they are more attuned to watching for body posture.
  • Confidence: The kids go through life under constant evaluation. They are rated by their behavior, grades and athletic performance. This is especially true of middle school students. Pets have no such expectations; they're delighted that the youngster is with them. Pets give kids the sense of unconditional acceptance. No judging or rating is involved.
  • Empathy: The kids often become curious about the emotions their pets feel. This curiosity will extend itself to others. Animals offer an avenue for kids to explore their curiosity. For a youngster, curiosity can lead to hope and to greater engagement with the world around them.
  • Nurturing skills: If properly supervised by adults, a youngster learns how to take care of another living being, and take pleasure in keeping the pet healthy and happy.
  • Resilience to change: The kids who undergo traumatic experiences often cope better when they have a pet to confide in. Loneliness is very dangerous to kids. Having an animal companion can make them feel a part of something.

One study explored the relationship between pets and Asperger's kids. Specifically, the study, conducted by a child psychologist in New Mexico, looked at the effect dog ownership had on 10- to 12-year-olds. The researcher was surprised at the difference in empathy and self-esteem between pre-adolescents who owned a dog and those who did not. This research supported the growing body of evidence that shows dog ownership has statistically significant impact on self-esteem and sensitivity toward others. A pet has no such measures of success or failure; acceptance is total, which provides a sense of self worth.

Pets also teach these young people about the importance of taking care of themselves. For instance, one therapist says she teaches kids why it is important to take care of a pet, brush his teeth and keep him clean. When they understand the importance, the therapist turns the focus on the kids themselves. If brushing a dog's teeth is important for his health, then naturally it is important for the youngster's well being.

This doesn't necessarily mean that all kids with the disorder are ready for pet ownership. Moms and dads should first make sure their youngster desires a pet before rushing out to get one. Together, they should decide what type of pet is best. Moreover, don't assume your youngster will take care of the pet. The ultimate responsibility usually falls on the parent, not the kid, to make sure the pet is healthy.

As most of us with pets realize, pets can be a source of comfort and happiness. It is no surprise that they can also have therapeutic and healing benefits. The playful nature of pets seems to help bring kids with Asperger's and HFA out of isolation.  

More resources for parents of children and teens with High-Functioning Autism and Asperger's:

==> How To Prevent Meltdowns and Tantrums In Children With High-Functioning Autism and Asperger's

==> Parenting System that Significantly Reduces Defiant Behavior in Teens with Aspergers and High-Functioning Autism

==> Launching Adult Children with Asperger's and High-Functioning Autism: Guide for Parents Who Want to Promote Self-Reliance

==> Teaching Social Skills and Emotion Management to Children and Teens with Asperger's and High-Functioning Autism

==> Parenting Children and Teens with High-Functioning Autism: Comprehensive Handbook

==> Unraveling The Mystery Behind Asperger's and High-Functioning Autism: Audio Book

==> Highly Effective Research-Based Parenting Strategies for Children with Asperger's and High-Functioning Autism


Do you need the advice of a professional who specializes in parenting children and teens with Autism Spectrum Disorders?  Sign-up for Online Parent Coaching today.



Wendy said...

My aspie daughter tried for a year to convince me to get a dog. I finally gave in after reading up on therapy pets. It turned out to be the worst decision I ever made as her violence turned to the dog as well as me, some of the things that she has had to endure is unbelievable. She is such a lovely natured dog and it breaks my heart to see her get hurt but I am unable to get rid of her as I have grown extremely attached to her. My daughter has extremely big issues when it comes to anyone or thing getting close to me. It's so sad because I know that they could have such a great relationship if only my daughter would let the dog become her friend.

Johnny said...

I'm 18 and an aspie, always found I got on better with animals, was always able to understand them better than people. When I was growing up I'd always wanted a dog but we only ended up getting one when I turned 17. Until I was diagnosed at the age of 8 or 9, my mom used to force me to make eye contact since whenever I was in trouble. I think this may have caused a few problems because now whenever I look her in the eye its even worse than when I look a stranger in the eye, the only human I can look in the eye is my brother, with everyone else it feels like the most uncomfortable situation ever. But getting the family pet angus has been probably the best help for me, for someone who is socially awkward like me it's good to have someone that you don't have to feel awkward around, and holding the gaze of another living thing, I know to ordinary people it sounds a bit silly, but it really is an amazing feeling.

Anonymous said...

My son's dog has been amazing for him. She senses when he's getting frustrated and goes to him, which can avert a meltdown. They're inseparable. The dog also helps calm my son when he's having a meltdown, and I think has ended some of them sooner. She also comforts him when they are over.

They are together all the time. I've been proud of how my son takes care of her.

Anonymous said...

My older brother use to have a cat named Calie, who was a socially awkward cat herself. She just wanted to stay in my brothers room every day, every week, every month. She never wanted to be touched or picked up.. or anything--the perfect cat for him. He said Calie was "his girl", and he loved her a lot. Even being in the room with her after a hard day of school really helped him ease his mind. Eventually I moved in with grandma, and my mom gave away the cat(on the count of her stupid new boyfriend!).. then that's when we found out he had Aspergers. His notes became almost impossible to understand, it's very hard to hold a conversation with him, and he won't look you in the eye anymore. When my mom decided to give away Calie(because her boyfriend told her to), he said he never wanted another animal again.

Anonymous said...

My 13 yr old daughter just got a kitten, she has been wanting one for awhile. She loves the kitten but I feel like she is a little ruff with it at times. She will be loving it like hugging it but then look mad. She tosses it up in the air a little and catches it hugs it at first she will be smiling but the gets an angrey face. should I be concerned? she does this in other situations to looks happy then mad.

Anonymous said...

Animals are living creatures with feelings, they should not be subjected to abuse or neglect for any reason. Wendy needs to realize that she is being selfish keeping an animal in a abusive home because she is "attached " to it. And anonymous? Do you really think it is okay for anyone to be "tossing" a cat in the air? It is a cat not a ball. I am all for therapy pets but not at the animals expense.

Connie said...

Wendy sounds like a complete selfish idiot who shouldn't have children or dogs, period.

Unknown said...

Our son is on the Aspergers spectrum and has the meltdowns that can come up very unexpected and as usual are very devastating on him and us.
How can I find a therapy dog that is able to sense his anxiety and help us before we get to this stage?
Also, he has a brother that loves animals and I am afraid the animal may gravitate towards him, making things worse.
Any ideas or experience would be great.

Unknown said...

I am the father of an 11 year old that is on the Aspergers spectrum.
I am struggling with trying to keep order in our house and also have a good relationship with my son.
How can I have expectations to help him control his outbursts and still have a good relationship with him.
While he still gets upset with his mom, they tend to have a very good relationship.
I am very patient, I show him lots of affection and I am active in his life, but he is extremely verbally abusive more with me than anyone else. Maybe his little brother as well.
Do you have any advice you can share.
Thank you,

Just saying said...

One of my dogs puppies went to a home with a child that has aspergers. The child is four and continues to jump on the puppy with all his weight. This dog will grow to be very large and i pray that she inherits her father's docile temperment because this child is gruesome. I wish i would of never allowed this dog to be placed in this home as their philosophy is the child does no wrong and they constantly blame others for the childs behavior. I fear they will put the pup down if she even as much scratches him. This i do not agree with. I plead with all parents to consider the breed of dog and their temperment before bringing a furry four-pawed creature into your home. Even my pups that are handled daily before being placed in a home cannot be expected to endure this daily abuse. Perhaps a better option would be to obtain a dog that has been trained to work with people that have this disorder to make it a safe environment for both the child and animal.

Unknown said...

You should get rid of your dog to a loving family. It would be best for everyone especially the dog!!

My child has been rejected by his peers, ridiculed and bullied !!!

Social rejection has devastating effects in many areas of functioning. Because the ASD child tends to internalize how others treat him, rejection damages self-esteem and often causes anxiety and depression. As the child feels worse about himself and becomes more anxious and depressed – he performs worse, socially and intellectually.

Click here to read the full article…

How to Prevent Meltdowns in Children on the Spectrum

Meltdowns are not a pretty sight. They are somewhat like overblown temper tantrums, but unlike tantrums, meltdowns can last anywhere from ten minutes to over an hour. When it starts, the Asperger's or HFA child is totally out-of-control. When it ends, both you and your child are totally exhausted. But... don’t breathe a sigh of relief yet. At the least provocation, for the remainder of that day -- and sometimes into the next - the meltdown can return in full force.

Click here for the full article...

Parenting Defiant Teens on the Spectrum

Although Aspergers [high-functioning autism] is at the milder end of the autism spectrum, the challenges parents face when disciplining a teenager on the spectrum are more difficult than they would be with an average teen. Complicated by defiant behavior, the teen is at risk for even greater difficulties on multiple levels – unless the parents’ disciplinary techniques are tailored to their child's special needs.

Click here to read the full article…

Older Teens and Young Adult Children with ASD Still Living At Home

Your older teenager or young “adult child” isn’t sure what to do, and he is asking you for money every few days. How do you cut the purse strings and teach him to be independent? Parents of teens with ASD face many problems that other parents do not. Time is running out for teaching their adolescent how to become an independent adult. As one mother put it, "There's so little time, yet so much left to do."

Click here to read the full article…

Parenting Children and Teens with High-Functioning Autism

Two traits often found in kids with High-Functioning Autism are “mind-blindness” (i.e., the inability to predict the beliefs and intentions of others) and “alexithymia” (i.e., the inability to identify and interpret emotional signals in others). These two traits reduce the youngster’s ability to empathize with peers. As a result, he or she may be perceived by adults and other children as selfish, insensitive and uncaring.

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to read the full article...

Highly Effective Research-Based Parenting Strategies for Children with Asperger's and HFA

Become an expert in helping your child cope with his or her “out-of-control” emotions, inability to make and keep friends, stress, anger, thinking errors, and resistance to change.

Click here for the full article...