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Pets + Children With Autism

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Having a child with autism can keep you busy: doctor’s appointments, therapies, IEP meetings, and more. And then there are the daily challenges of parenting a child with autism. You have plenty to keep you busy – and, yet, at some point, you may have asked yourself, “Should we get a pet? Or would that just add more chaos?”

You’re not alone in asking that question. Over the years, a number of researchers have wondered the same thing, and the answer is a resounding “Yes!”: Having a pet can be a wonderful thing for children with autism.

One group of French researchers studied pet ownership among 40 families that included children with autism. They found that children who received a pet around the time they were Kindergarten-aged showed improvement in two important social skills: sharing with others and comforting people in distress. Interestingly, children who had had a pet since birth showed no improvement over children without pets. The researchers theorized that it could be the act of bringing a new pet home and watching other family members care for and bond with it that made the difference. They got to see the active welcoming and inclusion of the pet on a much simpler level than human interactions.

Additional research conducted by Gretchen Carlisle of the University of Missouri College of Veterinary Medicine produced similar results. Carlisle’s research showed that children with dogs had better social skills than those who did not. In addition, she found that children with any kind of pet were more likely to do things like introduce themselves, ask for information, and respond to questions. Carlisle theorizes that pets act as a “social lubricant,” attracting attention from other people, which then creates additional opportunities for children with autism to practice their social skills. Pets also provide an obvious and easy topic of conversation.

Wondering what type of pet is best? It depends. Most of the research involved dogs, but suggests that just about any type of pet could potentially provide beneficial effects. Naturally, it then becomes a decision of what works best for your family. Allergies, of course, should be one consideration. After that, think about your child’s particular challenges. If your child is easily overstimulated, an older dog or cat might be better than an energetic puppy or kitten. Or, if your child likes everything in its place, a pet like a hamster, rabbit, or guinea pig might be a good choice. Getting a pet might be a little more work for you, but it could go a long way toward helping your child develop important social skills.


Emotions Matter

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Emotions are an incredibly powerful force in our lives! Emotions fuel our mental state, they tell us how we feel and how to respond to certain situations. So, what if a person has difficulty recognizing their emotions?

Children with Autism often experience that difficulty. They find it hard to recognize the facial expressions and what emotions they hold. And on the other end, they have trouble controlling their own emotions and reactions. The good news? We can do something about it.

Here are some of the tips for parents to use in helping their children develop and improve their ability to express and respond to emotions:

Associate simple words with emotions. One way to help your child remember and recognize emotions is by pointing out emotions as they organically arise. Take for example watching TV- If a character is smiling and joyous, point out his face and demeanor while saying “Look, Edward’s smiling. He is happy.”

Focus your child’s attention. Another helpful way in developing your child’s response to emotions is by improving their concentration skills. You can work on this trait by allowing him to focus on a person while they are speaking.

Respond to your child’s emotions. One good way to backup your child’s emotional recognition skill is by responding to their emotion by recognizing and verbally expressing what emotion is present. For example, “You’re smiling. You must be happy.”

Encourage your child to maintain eye contact. Having your child maintain eye contact when communicating with someone is an effective way in helping them practice and improve their emotional recognition skills.

Utilizing resources that are available to you is also important; other parents, blogs, social skills groups, one on one therapy, etc. Every child has their own pace of learning and developing. So, despite any hiccups or bumps in the road, remember to stay positive!