For children with autism, entering the daily grind of elementary school has its own unique set of challenges. From learning to socialize with other kids their age to dealing with all kinds of new - and sometimes overwhelming - sources of stimulation, it can be a scary time. But what can be equally difficult is feeling like the odd one out in a classroom, different and alone in their difference.
One factor that can make a major difference is pets. From cats to dogs to even guinea pigs, many organizations are cropping up that bring all kinds of pets into the classroom to help facilitate socialization and understanding. Organizations like the Virginia Beach SPCA's Autistic Bridges program work with local schools to discover the many unique ways pets can help children.
Virginia Beach SPCA's Amy McNally has seen firsthand how transformative the companionship of these pets can be. From teaching kids to quell their fear of dogs to bringing them out of their shell, she has occasionally had a hard time holding back tears looking at what a difference these pets can make.
McNally remembers entering one classroom where a boy with Autism informed her that he had Autism, assuming that meant he wouldn't be able to play with the pet.
"I said, 'You're special, you're going to be able to treat these pets in a special way too,'" she remembers. "I put the guinea pig on his lap and he was just so sweet and gentle and tender with him it almost broke my heart."
Here are some of the many ways that pets can be useful for these children:
Many of the pets that Autistic Bridges introduces to children often have special needs of their own. This can help kids who feel alone or alienated feel like they're not the only ones who are different. Interacting with a pet with a special need helps them see how easy it is to love a fellow creature, just as they are.
"I brought in a blind cat once and it was amazing because kids with special needs all know that they're unique and different," McNally explains."To bring in a pet that has a special need themselves, it's nice to teach through that lens. It lets them know that being different and unique is something to be commended."
Mastering social interactions can be difficult for children with Autism, because they see the world differently, and may not always interpret emotional cues the same way their peers do. This can mean learning to withdraw from interactions at a young age, but the companionship of a pet can help prevent this from happening.
The affection that a cat or a dog can give to a child can give them confidence in their ability to form a bond and become friends with those around them. If a child has their own companion pet, it also attracts people to come greet the cat or dog, encouraging the child to interact as well. Most therapy dogs are not supposed to be petted by those passing by, but for an Autistic therapy dog, this is welcomed. If a child's pet is popular with their peers, they get to feel popular as well.
Kathy Hoopman's book All Cats Have Aspergers Syndrome is popular with parents whose kids are on the Autism spectrum, not because cats actually do have Aspergers, but because the book facilitates understanding. Using pictures of cats, it explains what the world is like for a child with Aspergers - what upsets them, what intrigues them, how they think - so that anyone from their parents to their peers can better understand them and how to treat them.
Sometimes just bringing in a range of different pets with different types of coats can help stimulate the minds of children with Autism.
"Oftentimes children with Autism have tactile issues," McNally explains. "They either really enjoy petting the pets or are very deterred by it. It's a neat way to address certain special needs that they have."
If you have an Autistic child, it may be worth considering either adopting a pet, or looking for a local organization that can provide your child with quality cat or dog time.
If you think your cat or dog has the right amount of patience and friendliness to change the lives of children with Autism, you should think about getting involved. Reach out to organizations in your area and see if you and your pet can visit classrooms and help out. Bonus: Your pet will get plenty of extra love back.
Is a pet right for your family?
Sure there's exciting evidence building up that pets can help children with Autism in many ways, but this may not be the best solution for all families. If your family is already experiencing a lot of stress, it may not be the right time to add taking care of a pet to everyone's responsibilities. You should also examine whether or not your child has interest in pets before making the leap. Have them meet cats and dogs at a local shelter and see if your child connects with any of them. Sometimes it takes waiting for the perfect pet to unlock that connection, and that can mean doing extra groundwork to find them.