- People with autism value human connection as much as others do.
- Some just need tailored support to develop the interpersonal skills that connection requires.
- Animal and plant caretaking is proven to help people with autism develop the skills they need to form meaningful relationships with others.
By William Anixter, MD, with Courtney Kelly.
Autism spectrum disorder (hereafter referred to as “autism”) is a complex, multidimensional condition far from fully understood. Though its etiology is still under investigation, its diagnostic criteria are constantly evolving, and its presentation varies significantly from individual to individual, challenges or differences interacting with others have remained one of its consistent hallmarks. Many with this condition experience difficulties maintaining eye contact, registering social cues, reading body language, or interpreting figures of speech.
On top of these barriers to interpersonal connection, some individuals with autism experience higher degrees of sensitivity to stimuli, which can render common features of interaction — a touch on the shoulder, a hug, or laughter — uncomfortable. Others struggle with impaired executive functioning, which makes it hard to sustain attention during conversation. Still others may find their topics of conversation limited by hyper-fixation on particular activities or subjects.
For these reasons, many individuals with autism find socializing to be extremely stressful and/or anxiety-provoking. While this may dissuade them from seeking out opportunities to interact with others, it doesn’t mean they don’t want relationships. People with autism value human connection as much as anyone else does; some just need tailored support to develop the interpersonal skills it requires. Enter animal and plant caretaking.
When they engage in a regular practice of caring for plants or animals, individuals with autism reap benefits that extend far beyond the literal and figurative fruits of their labor. Working on a farm, raising a pet, or tending a garden requires a combination of tasks that play to their unique strengths. Where the repetitive activities associated with these practices may be boring to some, individuals with autism often find them soothing. And where the complex problem-solving intermittently required may deter others, it’s often highly engaging and stimulating for people with autism.
Not only is animal and plant husbandry an arena in which individuals with this condition can excel, but it also involves practices that yield unambiguous results. When their gardens are blooming with beautiful flowers and tasty vegetables, gardeners know that their daily watering, weeding, and pruning have worked. And when their chickens that haven’t been laying eggs finally do, farmers have proof that they’ve successfully solved an issue. This tangible feedback goes a long way toward building self-efficacy, which empowers folks with autism to take on more difficult challenges. For some, this could include striking up a conversation.
Better Responsiveness to Feedback
It's no fluke that relationships are often said to be “cultivated.” Like gardens, fields of crops, or farm animals, relationships require consistent effort and responsiveness to feedback. But where interpersonal feedback can feel like criticism or rejection, feedback from plants and animals is clearly not personal. A goat who’s trying to take extra food from you isn’t doing that because he doesn’t like you. He’s doing that because he feels you aren’t in control of the grain you’re holding. Respond to this by adopting more confident, assertive body language, and he’ll respond by backing off.
By offering people with autism a nonjudgmental space in which they can practice interpreting feedback and adapting in accordance with it, plant and animal caretaking helps position them for success during human interactions. Not only do they learn that they don’t have to take others’ responses personally, but they also learn that those responses provide the intel they need for future interactions. Human conversation is an iterative process defined by trial and error, just like animal and plant caretaking.
More Confidence Taking Risks
None of us truly knows what’s going on in each other’s minds until it’s communicated. Often, we have to solicit this information from one another. We ask our friends, “How are you?” and when they say, “Good,” but their tone suggests otherwise, it’s wise to follow up in case they need support: “Seems like something might be wrong. Is there anything bothering you?” In the event they want to share, they will. If they don't? They’ll share that instead.
And though the latter scenario — depending on how the reluctance is communicated — can feel like being shot down, it’s much better to have taken the risk and inquired further than to have missed an opportunity to be there for someone you care about. Guessing wrong is an important part of human interaction. Animal and plant interaction too. If your dog is whining and staring at you, it’s impossible to know why until you start trying various interventions. You can give them attention first, and if they continue the behavior, you can take them outside. If they keep whining, you know they need something else, perhaps a water bowl refill.
This differs from the process of determining a human's needs only in that animals and plants have fewer, more straightforward requirements and do not judge their caretakers. They provide individuals with autism a safe space to practice taking the kinds of risks they need to take when interacting with humans. And the more they do take such risks, the better they get at accounting for perspectives and experiences that don't match their own.
Assuming Less, Paying Attention More
Folks with autism may struggle to account for another person’s perspective because of a tendency to hypo- or hypermentalize others. When they hypomentalize, they assume too little is going on in someone else’s mind, causing them to miss key communicative signals. When they hypermentalize, they assume beyond what they have reason to about another person’s mental state. Working with animals and plants conditions them to assume less and pay attention more, enabling them to pick up on the cues they need to better understand other living things.
In addition to helping them pay more attention, animal and plant caretaking can help people with executive functioning challenges get better at sustaining it. Puppies are notorious for wreaking havoc the second you take your eyes off them, and drifting while operating a hose could result in over- or underwatering your plants. The consequences built into animal and plant caretaking incentivize individuals to strengthen their attentional endurance over time. This translates to an improved ability to stay present during conversations, and that increases the amount of information they absorb while communicating.
Another way that animal and plant caretaking helps people with autism stay present during conversations is by supporting sensory integration. Studies show that spending time immersed in the sounds of pollinators, the feel of dirt, the smells of plants, and the colors of flowers and fruits is not only soothing but can also improve people’s sensory tolerance over time. This makes socializing a lot more accessible, as it lowers the distressing effects of the stimulation associated with groups or public spaces.
Common Ground With Others
Plant and animal caretaking is immensely rewarding for people with autism, doubly so when they can do it in collaboration with others. The shared experience of tending to a garden or raising chickens provides a built-in foundation for connection that makes engaging in conversation much less stressful for folks with autism. Without the pressure of having to figure out what to talk about, they have space to focus on the “how” of interacting. In other words, they can devote more of their energy to processing feedback, staying receptive to social cues, and learning about the people with whom they’re building relationships.
What’s more, the collaborative problem-solving that animal and plant caretaking often requires teaches people with autism how to navigate interpersonal conflict successfully. The more practice they get hearing out other people’s perspectives, expressing their own with compassion, and recovering from setbacks in the presence of others, the better equipped they’ll be to do the same when they have a disagreement with a colleague, friend, family member, or partner in another setting.
With more and more people of all ages being diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder, more parents, educators, caretakers, and community members are actively searching for better ways to support loved ones who have autism. If you are one such individual, helping your loved one get involved with animal or plant caretaking is a wonderful way to promote their well-being. The key is to select an activity that meets them where they are.
Avoid forcing your loved one to interact with too many people before they’re ready. The overwhelm they might feel could nullify any of the positives animal and plant caretaking might have otherwise conferred. Consider beginning with a backyard garden or pet. While tending to these plants or raising that animal may be a solitary endeavor, the activities involved will help them accrue the confidence, knowledge, and skills they need to take their next step towards fostering positive connections with others.