Pets and Autism

There is a posting going around on Facebook right now that is called “Why every baby should grow up with a pet”. Basically it’s 25 incredibly adorable photos of babies curled up sleeping in dog beds with puppies nestled right in or babies laughing at playful kittens. There’s even a cat on a playground swing in a little guys arms. There’s no doubt that pets can add so much to our lives and for many families it’s an easy decision to just get a pet. It’s usually as simple as deciding if you want one and are able to care for it properly. youth-0001Seems pretty simple right?

But what if you have a child with Autism? Does the same logic apply to a family like mine? It’s hard to know what to do when you have a child that didn’t follow the so-called rules. As a parent of a child with Autism I wondered about this question myself. I mean, everything else in our life became a conscious decision. Vacations. Yah right. Disneyland was not the happiest place on earth for us. Can you say sensory overload? And Schools. Argh. Could our local school handle, let alone help my child? Summer camp. Well, only if the aide can go too. Don’t get me started about play dates, childcare, or little league. It can be exhausting trying to just make a decision let alone actually doing the thing you spent months thinking about.

So I thought a lot about getting a pet. I worried about the pet’s safety. Would my son pull its fur out or tug on its tail? I imagined a bald dog walking through our house glaring at me, plotting his revenge on the carpet because he knew it was all my fault he was bald. Then I worried about my son. Would the animal bite or scratch him in defense? Was it fair to bring an animal into our sometimes crazy little family when there were days when I couldn’t even remember to brush my own hair before I walked out the door in the morning thanks to sleep deprivation? But on the flip side I have fond memories of growing up with my cats and have some guilt about not allowing my kids to feel that love too.

Finally we decided that the benefits outweighed the possible negatives and we would give it a try. So we opted to start with a cat. My son was fascinated by them and often talked about cats so it seemed like the logical choice for us. Of course we had to teach the concepts of gentle and stop before we brought our new fur baby into the house. We were lucky that my son caught on using a realistic looking stuffed toy. We would practice having it jump up on his lap and lick his hands so that it wouldn’t startle him when the real cat did. That was assuming of course that the real cat wouldn’t be smart enough to sabotage our best laid plans and hide under the bed for its entire life. Running through the play sequence with my son also had the added benefit of helping him with imaginary play which can sometimes be an area of difficulty for children with Autism.

Another surprise was just how much the new cat took to my son. It required patience, time and lots of modeling positive behaviors such as sitting still, not moving too quickly, a quiet voice, and gentle petting. They have a deep connection now and the cat often comes and sits right across his lap when he gets home from school. I believe it helps my son calm down when he’s a little wound up. I know not every child with Autism takes to their pets and you need to be prepared when you get a pet that a connection may not be there right away or maybe not ever. It will probably be helpful for you to find a calmer animal that can hopefully tolerate a few mistakes because let’s face it kids do forget the rules sometimes regardless if they have Autism or not. The cat we chose was quite maternal which I think helped but you should be prepared to provide your pet chances to escape to a quieter part of the house if your child struggles to be calm or gentle. Pets may also need breaks regardless of how patient your particular animal is. A bigger dog may be a safer choice if you have a child who is very busy or a little rough but proper training is highly recommended for any dog that you get. Your pet should know not to bite before you leave your child unsupervised even for a moment. A good tug on the ears may get a reaction that you don’t want. Speak with an animal expert (trainer, breeder, vet, etc) to get more advice about how to choose and train your new pet.

There are several wonderful charities in North America that provide service dogs to children with Autism and other medical conditions. Check your local listings to see if there is one in your area. This might be a good route to go if your child has any underlying medical concerns such as seizures or if they have behaviors that impact safety such as wandering away. If your child requires quite a bit of support a service dog may be a suitable choice as a companion animal for your child. They will still have all the benefits of having a pet with the added security of having an animal that can help keep them safe. These dogs are in very high demand and so waiting lists are sometimes several years long but for certain children they are vital companions. If you are ambitious enough I’ve even seen videos online about how to train your cat to be a companion animal for your child. Our cat is pretty great but she still has enough spunk in her that I’m not sure she would appreciate our attempts to train her to do much of anything. I’m convinced she thinks she’s trained us and she just might be right.

I started this posting talking about how pets can bring so much to our lives and I think that’s true for anyone. Having Autism means that you may relate to the world a little differently but love is love regardless of who you are and having a relationship with another living being can add so much to your life. When my son walks in the door from school and he’s had to face a seemingly unpredictable world full of people that don’t quite understand him there is nothing like having a warm cat curled up on your lap to make you feel accepted and okay exactly as you are. Animals bring unconditional love and that’s really what we all want and need.

I take comfort in knowing that we made the right choice for our family to have a pet and all the worry that once prevented us from adopting has now faded away. Because our cat brings so much to our lives last summer we decided that we were ready to add a small dog into our family. Everyone was thrilled with the choice…..well everyone but the cat that is.