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  • Writer's pictureJackson McMahan

Autism and Pets: The Benefits

By guest writer Jackson McMahan


Since time immemorial, humans and animals have shared a unique bond. Cave paintings from ancient civilizations depict a mutual respect and reverence for animals. Our ancestors hunted alongside them, found warmth with them, and even looked to them for spiritual guidance.


Humans and animals have always had a relationship that’s steeped in deep emotional, physiological, and psychological ties. That said, as time progressed, our relationship with these creatures evolved, and we began learning that this bond also holds a therapeutic power that benefits both sides of these relationships.

A smiling autistic woman snuggling her furry companion, a light brown dog.

Although the bonds between humans and animals can benefit anyone, the bonds between pets and people with autism can have profound effects. For many with autism, animals provide more than just fleeting moments of joy. They offer nonjudgmental companionship, provide some structure in our hectic lives, and even help with emotional expression. It is because of these benefits that interacting with animals can be beneficial for autistic individuals and is worth pursuing if you are on the spectrum.


The Human-Animal Bond


Physiological and Psychological Effects

In the present day, science has begun to understand the full breadth of the benefits we gain from our animal companions. For example, interacting with animals has been shown to trigger the release of oxytocin, a hormone associated with bonding and affection, in both humans and the animals they interact with. This hormone not only promotes feelings of love and trust but also helps reduce stress and anxiety levels.


Moreover, the mere presence of animals has been linked to lowered blood pressure, reduced feelings of loneliness, and even increased levels of certain neurochemicals connected to happiness and well-being. Psychologically, animals also offer a unique form of interaction that is free from societal judgments and pressures, which makes them perfect companions for anyone struggling with human interactions.


Animals and Autism

For autistic individuals, these physiological and psychological effects are amplified. The nonverbal communication that animals rely upon aligns with many autistic individuals' strengths and comfort zones. Moreover, the predictability and straightforward nature of animal behavior can be a refreshing contrast to the often complex and unpredictable world of human social interactions.


Emotional and Social Benefits

An autistic woman snuggling her pet, a white cat.

In a world where social norms and cues can often be puzzling or overwhelming for many autistic individuals, animals present an alternate pathway to understanding and expressing emotions. Their consistent behaviors, nonjudgmental nature, and unconditional love make them not just pets but invaluable companions in navigating human emotions and relationships.


Nonjudgmental Companionship

One of the most cherished features of the human-animal relationship is an animal’s unconditional acceptance. They don't care about societal norms, the mistakes we've made, or the challenges we face. A dog won't judge someone for stimming or being nonverbal; a cat won't mind if one struggles with eye contact. This unwavering acceptance creates a safe space where autistic individuals are allowed to be their authentic selves without the fear of judgment or misunderstanding.


Empathy Teachers

Interacting with animals can be an excellent way for autistic individuals to develop and understand empathy. Observing and caring for an animal necessitates tuning into their nonverbal cues, understanding their needs, and responding with kindness.


A pet rabbit sitting in a woman's lap.

Nonverbal Cue Assistance

While animals don’t communicate through words, they are masters of nonverbal communication. The wagging of a dog's tail, the purring of a cat, or the fluttering of a bird's wings can all convey different emotions. For many autistic individuals (or anyone struggling with verbal or nonverbal communication), this form of interaction can be intuitive and fulfilling.


Emotional Expression Helpers

For those who might struggle to express themselves verbally, animals offer an alternative mode of emotional expression. The simple act of caring for an animal, be it feeding, grooming, or just sitting together, can convey feelings of love, concern, and affection. Moreover, animals can often pick up on subtle cues and respond by offering comfort during moments of distress or anxiety.


Human Interaction Catalysts

Animals, with their endearing behaviors and universal appeal, can often act as social lubricants. For an autistic individual, having a pet can pave the way for increased social interactions. Whether it's answering questions about their pet, sharing experiences, or even bonding with other animal lovers, these interactions can serve as a foundation for building stronger human relationships.


Structure and Routine

A black pug dog on a leash, providing routine and structure to its owner through the need to be walked.

For many autistic individuals, the world can sometimes seem like a chaotic sea of unpredictability and change. Amidst this, routines and structures emerge as calming lighthouses that provide a sense of predictability and stability. Animals can contribute to providing stability because of their need for routine.


The Importance of Routine for Autistic Individuals

Routine can be a source of comfort and predictability for many, but for autistic individuals, it can play an important role in their lives. To put it simply, routines provide a framework that helps many autistic individuals make sense of and manage their lives. When routines are disrupted, the results can sometimes be distressful or anxiety-inducing, which emphasizes why finding consistent anchors that allow for some sense of stability matters.


How Animals Instill Routine

Feeding Schedules: Most animals thrive on routine feeding schedules. Whether it's the morning chirps of a bird awaiting its meal or a cat's habitual evening nudge for dinner, these routines provide anchor points in a day.


Grooming Needs: Animals, especially those with specific grooming needs like dogs or rabbits, necessitate a routine of care – be it weekly baths, regular brushing, or even nail trims.


Exercise and Play: Dogs, in particular, require regular walks and playtime. This not only instills a structure but also ensures physical activity, which can benefit both the pet and the owner.


Health and Vet Visits: Regular check-ups, vaccinations, and health routines further add to the structured care an animal requires.


Responsibility and Purpose

In addition to providing a routine, taking care of an animal instills a sense of responsibility. For autistic individuals, this responsibility can be empowering. Knowing that another living being relies on and benefits from their care provides a sense of purpose and boosted self-esteem for autistic individuals. Over time, this responsibility nurtures traits like patience, commitment, and diligence.


Adapting to Minor Changes

A young tan dog standing on a table at a vet's office, licking the vet's face.

While animals bring structure, they also introduce minor and manageable schedule changes. Pets, like humans, can face also health issues that require a change in routine, diet, or medication. There will also be times when the routine needs to change due to various circumstances such as vet appointments or emergencies.


Learning to adjust the routine while ensuring the pet's needs are met teaches flexibility and problem-solving. These small changes, within the broader framework of routine, can help autistic individuals gradually adapt to and accept variability.


Types of Animals and Their Specific Benefits

Animals bring a spectrum of benefits to the lives of autistic individuals. Each animal opens doors to different therapeutic advantages, which promotes growth, companionship, and learning in various aspects. The following list covers a few animals and explores how their distinctive characteristics can be impactful.


Dogs

Service and Support: Dogs, particularly those trained as service animals, can provide support by helping navigate social settings, mitigating anxiety, and assisting in daily routines.


Social Interactions: Dogs often become conversation starters, which can help autistic individuals engage socially.


Cats

Calming Presence: The mere presence of a cat, with its gentle purring and soft fur, can be calming and help alleviate anxiety and stress.

A tabby cat snuggling in bed with its owner, providing a calm presence.

Tactile Stimulation: The act of petting a cat can provide tactile stimulation that promotes sensory integration and comfort.


Small Animals (e.g., Rabbits, Guinea Pigs)

Building Gentle Handling Skills: Smaller animals necessitate gentle handling, which helps individuals to develop finesse and tenderness in their interactions.


Sensory Regulation: The soft fur and gentle movements of these animals can soothe the senses to provide a sense of calm and focus.


Birds

An autistic woman interacting with her blue and white pet bird that is sitting on her wrist.

Inspiring Vocalization: Birds, with their varied sounds and songs, can inspire vocal interaction and engagement.


Colorful Stimulation: The vibrant colors and lively movements of birds can serve as visual and interactive stimulation.


Choosing the Right Companion

Understanding Individual Needs: Each animal comes with its own set of requirements and characteristics. When choosing a suitable animal companion, it is important to consider your specific needs and sensitivities.


A young man with no shirt with a tan lizard on his shoulder.

Ensuring Mutual Comfort: It's important to ensure that the interaction is comfortable and safe for both the individual and the animal to promote a mutual relationship of respect, care, and understanding.


Safety Considerations

Although there are many benefits for autistic individuals interacting with animals, it’s also important to ensure the safety and well-being of both the individual and the animal. For a therapeutic relationship to flourish, all interactions must be built on a foundation of mutual respect, understanding, and care.


Understanding Individual Sensitivities

Allergies and Health Concerns: Before introducing an animal into your life, it's important to check if you have allergies or health concerns related to any pet you are considering. That way, you can find an animal companion that doesn’t potentially harm your health, or worse yet, needs to be relinquished because you can’t be around the animal.


A tan dog barking in an aqua blue colored room.

Behavioral Considerations: Some autistic individuals may be sensitive to certain sounds, textures, or movements. For example, someone may be startled by a dog's bark but find solace in a cat's purr. Recognizing and accommodating these sensitivities is important when seeking a pet.


Preparing the Environment

Safe Spaces: Both you and the animal should have designated safe spaces you can retreat to if overwhelmed. This ensures that both can take breaks and recharge when needed.


Avoiding Overstimulation: Especially in the initial stages, it's important to ensure that your environment is not overly stimulating. This means moderating noise levels, limiting sudden movements, and creating a calm atmosphere.


Training and Education

Educating the Individual: Teaching yourself about the animal's needs, boundaries, and behaviors is crucial when taking the step to care for an animal. This can be done through books, videos, or hands-on sessions with a skilled animal trainer.


Training the Animal: Especially in cases of larger animals or those intended for therapeutic purposes, proper training is essential. This ensures that the animal can understand and respond to the individual's needs appropriately.


Conclusion

Throughout history, the bond between humans and animals has been a testament to the deep and multifaceted connections that transcend language, societal norms, and traditional therapies. For autistic individuals, this bond offers a unique blend of therapeutic, emotional, physical, and communicative benefits.


Interacting with animals not only addresses specific challenges faced by those with autism but also introduces elements of joy, spontaneity, and genuine connection. From the rhythmic calm of a cat's purr to the loyal companionship of a dog, from the tactile comfort of small animals to the empowering stride of a horse in equine therapy, animals play a diverse and enriching role in the lives of many autistic individuals.


However, it's important to remember that this journey is a two-way street. While animals offer their unconditional love and therapeutic presence, it's our responsibility to ensure their well-being and comfort. By approaching these interactions with understanding, respect, and safety in mind, the human-animal relationship can truly flourish and enrich lives in ways we might never have imagined.

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