How Pets Could Help Autistic Kids in Social Situations

Maxwell feeds his kitten, Steve, with a bottle. Steve, who is female, is named after a Minecraft character.Maxwell feeds his kitten, Steve, with a bottle. Steve, who is female, is named after a Minecraft character.Don't expect this to be covered by your insurance, but getting a pet might be just the thing for teaching autistic children to share and comfort. A new study found that autistic children with pets have better "prosocial behaviors" like sharing, and comforting, than autistic children without pets. The study, conducted in France and published this week in the journal PLoS ONE, was small, and researchers said that larger studies would be needed to confirm the findings. Interestingly, the study only found the difference when the child's family adopted a pet when the child was age five or older. Children who had had pets from birth did not show the same results.

Does this mean all parents of autistic children should run out and get pets. Absolutely not.

"We certainly don't want families who are already stressed to get the idea that they need to add a pet to their family if that pet is not really wanted," said Alycia Halladay, PhD to WebMD. Dr. Halladay is director of environmental research for the education and advocacy group Autism Speaks.

I'm going to go ahead and second that because for many parents, I can envision a pet being the thing that sends them over the edge into insanity. I have four kids (two with Asperger Syndrome, an Autism Spectrum Disorder), a husband, and two cats. My 11-year-old daughter would love a dog, but I'm pretty sure I cannot possibly take care of one more living thing without being shipped off to the Nervous Hospital.

However, my daughter, known on the Internet as the Pork Lo Maniac, does love animals. She finds tremendous comfort in our two cats, Luke and Leia.

Related: 13 reasons why you should own a guinea pig

"When they're sitting on my lap, the feeling of them on me, the weight-it's so relaxing. It's not much weight if it's Leia, but Luke is a big heavy tub of goo." So basically our cats are like living, furry, self-heating weighted lap pads.

"Sometimes it's easier to be with animals than people, because they're not going to make fun of you or anything," my daughter said. (Yes, that sound you just heard was my heart breaking.) "They might not understand the words you're saying, but I feel like if they spoke English, they'd probably be understanding. Especially dogs, dogs just want to make you happy. But still I love all animals equally."

"I feel so comfortable around them," she continued. "I just talk to them. With Leia, we have our own little world. We talk about things that would only make sense if you knew about our world."

Related: 12 dog-friendly treats you can make at home

"Leia sleeps with me every night, because when she tries to get off my bed, I don't pull her back on. I think she likes how much attention and affection I give her. Plus I make sure that Luke doesn't bother her. And sometimes I also sing her a lullaby, and assure her that Lukie won't come to get her, because I'll take care of it."

The PLM is referring to the fact that despite being told repeatedly by the Crazy Cat Lady at the pet adoption place that these two cats adored each other, the cats actually hate each other. Part of the problem is that Leia is deaf, and she can't hear Luke sneaking up on her to "play." And also, her balance is pretty bad, so the slightest thing knocks her over-let alone a silent, 17-pound cat.

"I know she can't hear me," said the PLM, "but she can sense that I'm trying to keep her safe, and that I love her."

Related: 13 hilarious pictures of cats caught in weird places

On the other hand, my six-year-old son Little Dude, who also has Asperger Syndrome, isn't the biggest fan of most animals. Dogs in particular are always a source of stress.

"They're loud, and I feel like they will bite me," he said. "There was one dog that I did like. It wasn't loud, and it was very gentle with me."

The biggest problem is that dogs are somewhat unpredictable, which just runs against Little Dude's grain.

"I'm wondering if they will lick me, and I don't like licking," he said. "And they might bite me. They might bark. A bunch of stuff that dogs might do, I don't like."

The licking is a pretty big sensory problem for Little Dude, who clarified, "I used to be terrified of when they lick me. I have no idea why I was terrified when they licked me. Now it's not that I'm scared, I just don't like it." Duly noted.

Related: The 10 best big dog breeds for families

Little Dude used to be afraid of cats, but he's gotten over that fear as he's spent more time with them. My parents have two cats that make almost no noise and rarely even move, but he hated them anyway.

"I was so terrified of them, that one time I had to hide in the bathroom," he remembered. "I was so scared. But then I got used to them, and now I know they're kind and gentle."

"Now I love cats. They're one of my favorite animals. I like their soft meowing, their cute napping. It's just very sweet. There's nothing that could go wrong with cats. Except when they fight, of course."

Little Dude's ideal pet?

"I like turtles. They walk very slowly with tiny steps. And they make no noise. But they do swim around."

For many families, like mine, the impact pets can have is palpable. I'm fortunate that some of my readers were willing to share photos of their adorable kids (who happen to be on the spectrum) and their adorable pets!

- By Joslyn Gray
Follow Joslyn on Babble

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