Animals and Autism – What’s behind it? Part 3

In my previous post I looked at ways in which animals can help reduce anxiety in people with autism. In this post I will look at ways in which animals can help teach social skills and different perspectives.

All people on the spectrum struggle to some extent with social interaction – social difficulties are an underpinning feature of autism. Part of the reason for this is that many of us struggle with Theory of Mind, or the concept that other people may have thoughts, feelings and perceptions different to our own. This in turn can lead to acute anxiety because of the inability to predict and therefore respond appropriately to the social behaviour of others.

Whilst it is possible  to improve in this regard over time, it can be a long and difficult process and animals can be invaluable teaching tools along the way. Research into the affects of pet ownership on neurotypical children found that pets were sources of social interaction, affection and emotional support (Lookabaugh-Trienbacher 1998) but further research into autistic children and pets had very similar findings. The non-judgmental and positive affection of animals coupled with simpler body language meant that children who struggled to relate to other humans found relating to animals less challenging.

The introduction of a pet into families with autistic children found that over time the children showed a significant increase in offering to share the pet and to offer it comfort (Grandgeorge et al 2012). Other research (Colteau and Parlow 2009) found that children with ASD who interacted with a dog for at least 45 minutes a day had better language skills than a control group and were able to form strong attachments to their dogs.

The picture of an autistic child who is fixated on a particular toy or other object is a familiar one but the child who forms a relationship with an animal instead is likely to be learning many things about social interaction that neither an inanimate object nor a social story could teach as well. As a living, breathing, sentient being with feelings, animals offer a greater opportunity to learn the basic building blocks of social interaction.  The learning process is not necessarily restricted to children either.  As a personal example, I acquired my first dog, Minder,  in my twenties and this is the affect he had on me:

 In a paradoxical way a dog was effectively making me more like a human and, in my eyes, Minder seemed to become more human every day.  With Minder, I talked the nonsense all dog owners talk to their dogs.  I never minded his interruptions into the hitherto sacrosanct space of my private thoughts, and I began to think in terms of the two of us.  The autistic had become We.

(Dunne “A Pony in the Bedroom” pub Jessica Kingsley).

Animals, even as an adult, have taught me a great deal about looking at things from another’s point of view.  Later when a horse called Bailey came into my life I began to see and experience the world differently:

I learned about how he was witnessing and experiencing the world as an equine, imagining myself in his place,doing that thing that autistic people find so difficult – putting yourself in someone else’s shoes.

Whilst relating to animals may be the start of a long process of learning to relate to the world around you, animals can provide a fun and pleasurable way in which is also natural and enriching.  For many on the spectrum who remain relatively isolated, animals can be a source of pleasure and friendship which in itself is a great bonus.

In my next post I will consider how animals can help promote communication between people with autism and others.