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Is Owning a Pet Beneficial to Autistic Children?

The benefits and challenges of pet ownership for neurodiverse families.

Key points

  • Autistic individuals can be vulnerable to experiencing social anxiety.
  • Children on the autism spectrum may experience increased social skills and reduced physical arousal in the presence of an animal.
  • Time and cost of caring are primary factors that hold some parents of children on the autism spectrum back from owning a dog.

Research looking into the benefits of interacting with animals for children on the autism spectrum is promising.

Across various contexts, children on the spectrum have been found to show particular interest in animal stimuli. They show greater attention to eye regions of animal faces versus human ones (Whyte et al., 2016) and exhibit greater activation in social reward and emotional arousal areas of the brain in response to animal versus human stimuli (Whyte et al., 2016).

Being in the presence of an animal has been found to even reduce the experience of social anxiety in children and adults on the autism spectrum (Kirsch et al., 2005).

Autistic individuals can be vulnerable to experiencing social anxiety due to the high likelihood of miscommunication and negative interactions with neurotypical peers, as a result of differences in information processing and perception. In support of this, O’Haire et al. (2015) found that children on the autism spectrum have a higher baseline level of physical arousal than their neurotypical peers.

O’Haire et al. (2014) additionally found that when an animal was present, children on the autism spectrum experienced increased social skills and reduced physical arousal (O'Haire et al., 2015) within a social context, suggesting a reduction in social anxiety in the presence of an animal.

Other studies found an association between the presence of a service dog at home and increased social reciprocity (Wild, 2012) as well as lowered frequency of externalizing behaviors (Viau et al., 2010).

However, although there is research to suggest that engaging with animals benefits children on the autism spectrum in supporting their social communication and coping with anxiety, the current research volume is not sufficient for pet ownership to be short-listed as a best-practice intervention for young persons on the autism spectrum.

Beets et al. (2012) suggested that the social communication and decreases in arousal that result from interacting with animals may be associated with increases in oxytocin (OT), a peptide hormone associated with sensory stimulation within nourishing relationships.

Studies generally find an increase in levels of plasma OT following stroking dogs, with levels varying depending on the closeness of the relationship between the dog and the individual (Odendaal & Meintjes, 2003). While research suggests this to be a general trend, there are some discrepancies, such as Miller et al.’s (2009) finding that an increase in plasma OT in response to interacting with a pet dog occurred only in women, in their study.

Increases in levels of oxytocin have been associated with increases in social interaction and accompanying increases in eye contact and empathy (Auyeung et al., 2015), the lowering of levels of social anxiety (Kirsch et al., 2005), as well as improved learning in rats (Uvnäs-Moberg et al., 2000).

In addition, increases in levels of oxytocin have been associated with an enhanced response to stress, including a reduction in blood pressure, and heart rate, and decreases in glucocorticoid levels, particularly in the case of social stressors (Heinrichs et al., 2003).

The above findings, together with our children’s passion for animals, motivated our family to adopt Nikki, a 3-month-old pup (a cross between Shih Tzu and Labradoodle). Nikki made a remarkable adjustment to each of my two sons’ diverse needs. He has proved to be an embodiment of patience under duress, whether being stroked or endlessly commanded to give a paw, sit, not bark too loud, or poo on his grass mat.

After my son’s tumultuous year of coping with double vision and its impact on sensory regulation, Nikki offered him an additional dose of unconditional acceptance, comfort, and laughter. I witnessed a clear reduction of stress in my son and stroking Nikki’s soft fur became his go-to calming strategy for when he came home after school.

However, not all of my adult family members responded as enthusiastically to Nikki as my son, with some taking a long time to adjust to the challenge of adopting a puppy, especially given the initial tumultuous period of coping with challenges such as toilet training, chewing shoes, adjustment to the new responsibilities and expenses, and changes in routine.

Carlisle (2014) suggested that when considering adopting a pet, families of children on the autism spectrum would be wise to take into account the additional stresses they experience in comparison to parents of neurotypical children, as well as their time demands around juggling therapy requirements and support needs of their children.

Research suggests that women mostly identify themselves as primary caregivers in the families of children on the autism spectrum, as well as assume the greater responsibility for family pets (Carlisle, 2014), hence mothers in a particular are advised to consider their current levels of stress when considering adopting a family pet.

Carlisle (2014) additionally found that time and cost of caring were primary factors that parents of children on the autism spectrum identified as burdens in relation to owning a dog. Other variables that hold parents of children on the spectrum back from adopting a dog include sensory issues, with Carlisle (2014) finding that nearly 20% of parents who owned dogs reported associated sensory hypersensitivity in their children. Finally, Carlise (2014) found that parents reported needing to monitor their children around their pets and emphasized the importance of finding a good temperamental match between their child and the pet, as did other studies (Hall et al., 2016).

In summary, for children on the autism spectrum, the presence of a pet is a potential source of non-judgment and unconditional positive regard. They may find it easier and less stressful to interact with animals than people due to finding it easier to read their nonverbal signals and less complex facial features (Solomon, 2012). Being in the presence of an animal also doesn’t require navigating complex implicit social conventions and the reading of complex intentions, making it socially rewarding. Pets are facilitators of a positive, comforting, secure attachment (Melson et al., 1990) that has the potential to reduce children on the spectrum’s physical arousal associated with stress and anxiety, and enhance their experience of social communication with peers (O’Haire, 2015).

While families of children on the autism spectrum are encouraged to consider the benefits of interacting with an animal for their children, they are also encouraged to think about the unique characteristics of their family such as their current time and financial resources, their current levels of stress, and the unique sensory makeup of their family members, in considering whether adopting a pet is a viable option for their family.


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