Special Needs Now

Pets Can Help Kids with Autism Improve Social Skills

Little girl surrounded by pets
Pets are great for kids, but finding the right animal for a child with autism can be tough. My own kids -- which includes my 6-year-old son Liam, who has autism -- have learned a lot about responsiblity and gentleness by interacting with Sam, our patient, loyal, 15-year-old boxer-chow.

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Despite having Sam, I've still wished for a service dog for Liam. But the reality is: I'm a sleep-deprived working mom on a budget—I'm lucky if my kids' teeth and hair are brushed before we rush off to school in the morning. I don't have the time or money for another more specialized pet.

Luckily, a new study from the University of Missouri-Columbia shows that any pets—not just therapy dogs— can help kids with autism improve social skills. After talking to 70 families with kids (ages 8 to 18) on the spectrum, lead researcher Gretchen Carlisle made an important connection between pets and kids with autism.

"Children with any kind of pet in the home reported being more likely to engage in behaviors such as introducing themselves, asking for information, or responding to other people's questions," she said. These social skills are what so many kids on the spectrum struggle with and work on in therapy, so having a pet in the home is a great way to help kids who are more comfortable in their natural environments.

I know a sleepy fish or a cuddly bunny doesn't seem like the first choice for improving a child's assertiveness, but Carlisle argues, "if there's a pet in the home that the child is bonded with and a visitor starts asking about the pet, the child may be more likely to respond." I saw this very thing happen last month in my own home. A rush of holiday visitors sent Liam into a quiet corner to snuggle with Sam. One of my friends went over to talk to Liam, even though he's non-verbal. My friend was able to use Sam as a conversation starter and drew Liam into a giggling interaction that he normally would have avoided.

Like macaroni and cheese or peanut butter and jelly, pets and kids belong together. So, even if a therapy dog is not in your future, take heart and know that you can use whatever pets you like best—rabbits, horses, parrots, ferrets, mice, dogs, cats, snakes, turtles, fish, or anything in-between—to help your child with autism navigate the world a bit more easily.

Jamie Pacton lives near Lake Michigan where she drinks loads of coffee, dreams of sailing, and enjoys each day with her husband and two sons, Liam (6) and Eliot (4). Her writing has appeared in the Autism and Asperger's Digest (2011-2013), Parents, and the book collection Monday Coffee and Other Stories of Parenting Kids with Special Needs. Find her at www.jamiepacton.com, Facebook (Jamie Pacton), and Twitter (@jamiepacton).

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Image: Children and Pets, Cat Dog via Shutterstock