Autism presents many challenges for those who live with it and for the caretakers. Often, they may have a hard time relating to other members of the family or to people, in general. While they often prefer to be alone, that isn't always the best choice for the child's development. Having a companion can help a child feel as if they have someone they understand, that understands them. Other children on the spectrum may do just fine socially, but can't handle the over-stimulation that comes from playing outside with kids all day, or need a way to unwind after a long day at school.
Choosing a pet for any child on the spectrum, regardless of individual strengths and weaknesses, provides a form of therapy called animal therapy. This can help a child learn to enjoy life, feel as if they are not alone, boost self-confidence, reduce symptoms related to stress and anxiety and allows for opportunities to learn how to care for and love a pet.
There is no one type of pet that is best. Every child is different, and choosing a pet needs to be tailored to the child. Figuring out what animals they relate to, which ones they are fearful of or which ones are within the financial range and isn't too complicated for the child to take care of, are all important factors in determining the best pet for a child with autism.
Dogs are used more than any other pet for kids with autism. As with using dogs for people who suffer from blindness or who are hard of hearing, dogs can be trained to not only be companions, but to aide their young owners in ways of communication and protection. Dogs can be trained to track wandering children, or to stay by their sides to help keep them from wandering. Even if the dog isn't specially trained, it can make a great companion and keep the child interested enough that periods of wandering may decrease.
For those who have room and the financial ability, horses make great therapy pets for kids with autism. According to Franklin Levinson, founder of Equine Facilitated Learning (EFL) as quoted on wayofthehorse.org, "It's been clinically proven that just being in the vicinity of horses changes our brainwave patterns," says Franklin. "They have a calming effect which helps stop people becoming fixated on past or negative events - giving them a really positive experience."
Horse therapy has helped many nonverbal children with autism begin to say words. They come out of their world and join ours, because they want to be with the horses. As with dog therapy, it's not always necessary to be involved in a program with the horse. As long as the child isn't fearful of such a big animal, being with the horse, caring for it and riding it may have a calming effect while teaching important lessons.
Birds usually aren't the first animal thought of when choosing a pet for children with autism. However, some birds when hand-raised can be an excellent choice. Birds don't require a lot of care, and are fairly inexpensive. Birds, much like kids with autism, are very selective about who they like, and when they perform. If the child's sensory issues aren't affected, the bird's chirping can be mesmerizing and have a calming effect.
They can be trained to dance and talk, depending on the bird. Some have seen their nonverbal child begin to talk after teaching pet parrots to talk first. They have an ability to reach a child when nobody else can. This is something that the author of this article has had personal experiences with her own son. He has become the owner of two parakeets and a Pineapple Conure, while rescuing several injured, wild birds and nursing them back to health. It's given him a way of opening up that hasn't happened with any of his other pets.
Fish are a great choice for a child who may be lower functioning and have too many sensory problems to accept other pets. They don't require the sense of touch or sound, which can often irritate children with autism. They only require the sense of sight. Watching them swim in various patterns and seeing the different colors and sizes can produce a calming effect, giving the child a place to go when he's over-stimulated. Fish also make a great beginner pet for teaching the child to care for pets, because they are extremely low maintenance.
Adding pets to a child's life is exciting for all children. For those with autism, it is not only exciting, but can benefit the children in many areas. It's important to allow the child to help pick the pet. They won't always pick one that the parent expects, and if they don't bond with it, the parent or other members of the family will be the ones to take care of it. Allow the child to wander through pet stores, animal shelters or bird shows until he has found one that excites him. Watch him interact with the animals until he finds one that he feels secure with. This will become his new best friend, and he knows what he is comfortable with.