The bond between someone and their dog is like no other. And this relationship can be even more impactful for a child with autism. In recent years, there have been more and more studies on the benefits a dog has on people with autism spectrum disorder (ASD).
Benefits of Dogs for Children with ASD
There are many benefits to having a dog for children with autism including:
For a lot of children (and adults) who are on the spectrum, it is difficult for them to make friends. Kids with ASD often want to be social and want to make friends but it takes a bit longer for a child on the spectrum to learn the social skills needed to make and maintain friendships.
Dogs provide kids with unconditional love and they never make the child feel judged. Even if your child has struggled in the past with socialization, they will quickly feel the bond between themselves and their new companion animal. Dogs will help with feelings of loneliness and will give your child a built-in friend.
Many children on the autistic spectrum feel like they are trapped inside of their mind. A dog will be able to get their attention and bring their focus outside of their head. Dogs give children with special needs something to focus on and something to help care for. Dogs have even been shown to improve a child's focus and can help bring a child's attention away from a negative habit or behavior.
Calming During Meltdowns
All caregivers for autistic children are familiar with meltdowns. Dogs can sense emotions, and this is even stronger in specially trained autism therapy dogs. But even just a pet dog can feel when their person needs some extra love. Dogs can learn to help a child during an autism meltdown by licking them, leaning on the child, and literally soothing them with their love and kindness.
Research has shown that nearly half of all children with ASD have an anxiety disorder or elevated symptoms of anxiety. Dogs are great helpers for children with anxiety. An anxious child can reap the benefits of a dog just by simply petting or hugging them. Therapy dogs can also be trained to lie over a child, which provides light, weighted pressure, which helps to provide relief from anxiety. These methods can also help a child on the spectrum achieve better and sounder sleep.
Dogs can help to instill confidence in a child with ASD. With their dog by their side, an autistic child may be more likely to play with other children or go outside and dogs can even help them to sit or stand still. Helping to take care of the dog also promotes positive feelings in the child, helping them to build their self-confidence.
Many children with autism have delayed speech, are nonverbal, or are selectively mute. Research has shown that children with ASD will increase speech when they are in the presence of their dog. Even nonverbal children will increase their vocalizations. This is perhaps the most significant benefit of a dog to a child with autism.
Different Types of Dogs for Your Child with Autism
If you decide to get a dog to help your child, there are three different types of dogs that you can consider- companion dogs, therapy dogs, and service dogs.
A well-trained family dog can serve as an excellent companion dog for your child with ASD. These dogs will give your child unconditional love and friendship, as well as helping them to feel more comfortable around others, as well as teaching them responsibility and caring skills.
Therapy dogs are dogs that are specifically trained to provide affection and comfort. On top of providing your child with friendship, a therapy dog can help children grow emotionally and cognitively. Therapy dogs can also be trained to participate in sensory games with children with autism which will help them get the sensory stimulation that they need.
Lastly, service dogs are dogs that have been through intense training and certification to help someone with a disability. Service dogs can go with your child everywhere in public such as to school, therapy, and even restaurants. An autism service dog can be trained to recognize (and help stop) self-harming behaviors, calm down a child during a meltdown, and bark to alarm parents or caregivers for when a child needs help or assistance.
No matter what type of dog you decide is best for your child and your family, there are some traits that are important for any dog to have to make sure they are the best fit for a child with autism.
Gentle Disposition: The most important quality to look for is that the dog is gentle. The dog needs to be able to interact with a child with ASD gently and calmly. They can still be playful, but the dog needs to understand patience and tenderness.
Intelligence: The dog should be intelligent because this will make them easier to train.
People Oriented: A dog for an autistic child should be people oriented. These types of dogs will bond nicely with your child and make a great best friend for them.
With these qualities in mind, here are some of the best dog breeds to work with kids with ASD:
- Bernese Mountain Dogs
- Bull Terriers
- Golden Retrievers
- Great Danes
- Labrador Retrievers
- Old English Sheepdogs
- Poodles and Poodle Mixes
What about other animals?
If you are not ready to add a dog into your home, there are some other animals that make great companion pets for children with autism.
Fish make a great first pet because they are fairly easy to take care of and your child can help with them too. They are also quiet which is beneficial for some children with sensory issues. Also, watching a fish calmly swim around their tank can help reduce feelings of anxiety for children.
Guinea pigs have also been shown to have a calming effect on children with autism. These animals are very social and friendly and can help soothe your child. It has also been shown that a pet guinea pig can help a child with autism feel less anxious and be more interactive and social.
Last but not least, geckos are great pets for children with autism. This is because they are compliant, calm, and easy to handle. Geckos will also not bite, and they enjoy being held.
There are many ways that pets can benefit any person, but for children with autism, pets can significantly improve their lives and the lives of their parents. They take a lot of stress away and make everyday something to look forward to!