Monday, 11 June 2012

Autism and Animals

Many people with Autism, especially girls, seem to love animals.  There is no peer-reviewed scientific research on autism and animals, but many autistics seem to have a special bond with them.  That is not to say every person with Autism likes animals--some  get sensory overload from the smell, noise, or even feel of them, but in general, most people with autism have a special affinity for animals of all kinds.

I had many pets over the years.  I started with a turtle in a bowl when I was little but we didn't know how to take care of it properly back then.   Through the years I have had gerbils, hamsters, guinea pigs, rabbits, dogs, cats, birds, fish, a lizard and a tortoise.  Currently I have two dogs, two cats, three birds, fish and a tortoise.
Many families report that their loved ones with an autism diagnosis seem more relaxed around their dogs or cats.  This can be true whether they are petting them, talking to them or just keeping them company.   As well as providing companionship, animals can provide great sensory input.  You can touch them, smell them, hear them, and some might even lick them!  Cats and especially larger dogs can provide deep pressure by leaning or laying on you. 

I find animals help with my anxiety.  When I have a warm, furry animal to pet, I can put most of my focus on that and concentrate better on what I'm supposed to be doing or paying attention to.  My mind doesn't stray toward thinking of all the things around that I sometimes find frightening--like other people who I don't know well. 

My daughter and I shared a service dog and I took him with me to my parent support group meetings.  He helped lessen my anxiety.  I could look at him and pet him instead of wondering where to look or fidgeting with my hands.  He was also good for me socially at the meetings because people would talk to me about him.  He was a boxer so he had a snoring problem and a gas problem!  People still remember and ask about him years later!
Sea World was very welcoming.
Dexter even got a bandana and
water bottle/dish just for him!

Animals are great friends; you can talk to them and they will listen and not judge you.   You can tell your secrets to them and not have them repeated ('though I guess you would have to be more careful with a parrot who is a really good imitator!
In some families, the person with autism and their pet will bond because the person takes care of it- feeding it, brushing it, and playing with it.  It may be the person's only friend and provides them with someone to be responsible for.   No verbal language or people social skills are needed to interact with an animal.  It doesn’t take much to make them happy and you don’t have to read facial expressions!

Animals, especially dogs, are pretty good at demanding attention and interaction from us.  Dogs do not judge how well you throw a ball or Frisbee.  They're just happy to chase it.
I had a bond with the school horse I used to ride.  I enjoyed riding him, so I asked to ride him regularly in my lesson.  It was allowed and we got to know each other well, even though I only rode him once each week.  I fed him peppermints and talked to him while I groomed him.  I could tell that he liked me (the mints helped of course!) by the way he acted around me.  He and I did a lot of practicing my first Para-dressage test even though I would not be riding him for it.  He was the first horse I ever bonded with, and I was devastated when he had to be put down.  I have tried to not become attached to the one I am riding now but it is hard not to develop a deep relationship with these animals.


In her notes on nursing in 1860, Florence Nightingale, the founder of modern nursing wrote, “A small pet animal is often an excellent companion for the sick, for long chronic cases especially.  A pet bird in a cage is sometimes the only pleasure of an invalid confined for years to the same room.  If he can feed and clean animal himself, he ought always to be encouraged to do so.”
In her book “Animals in Translation”, Temple Grandin states that animals and people with Autism both think by making visual associations, we both fear high pitched noises, and both have emotions that are simpler like those of a watchful prey animal.

The statements by Temple Grandin could explain the reasons why so many people with Autism love animals.  We understand them and they understand us!