The power a pet can have in the life of a child with autism

A dog can help to socialize a child with autismVeterinarians are very important in the lives of pets and their owners. Veterinary technologists and technicians support veterinarians in the office by performing medical tests to diagnose illnesses and injuries in the animal patients. Having a team of professionals available to keep a pet safe and healthy can really put a pet owner’s mind at ease, especially if they are dealing with other stressors, like the health and happiness of a child in the house with autism.

Families who have children with autism are faced with challenges every day, including how to socialize their child. Recently, more focus has been placed on how dog ownership can help children with autism become more social.

According to Gretchen Carlisle, a research fellow at the Research Center for Human-Animal Interaction (ReCHAI) in the University of Missouri College of Veterinary Medicine, “Children with autism spectrum disorders often struggle with interacting with others, which can make it difficult for them to form friendships. Children with autism may especially benefit from interacting with dogs, which can provide unconditional, non-judgmental love and companionship to the children.”1

How can dogs help children with autism?

Children with autism find it difficult to connect with others. A dog’s unconditional love and affection can make it easier for autistic youngsters to open up, feel more comfortable and learn responsibility.2

Carlisle wanted to explore the relationship between dogs and autistic children, so she interviewed families with children who have autism. Seventy parents were involved in these interviews, and Carlisle explored how well the children interacted with the animals. She found that nearly two-thirds of the families owned dogs, and of those families, almost all of them said their autistic child had a special relationship with the dog. Those families reported that the reason they got a dog was because they believed it would help reduce stress in their child. Of the families that did not own dogs, 70 percent of them reported that their autistic child liked being around dogs.1

Besides helping to reduce stress, dogs can aid autistic children in feeling more comfortable approaching kids their own age. Carlisle explained that dogs can act like a social lubricant for these children.1

In 2012, a group of French researchers at the Autism Resource Center at Hospital Bohars studied the effects of owning a pet on 12 young children with autism who were enrolled in a day care program. The children in the study were given either a dog, a cat or a hamster to care for. The researchers found that after age 5, the children with a pet were more socially adjusted than the other autistic kids in the day care. Researchers noted that the children with pets shared their toys with other children and interacted more than children without a pet.3

One interesting fact the researchers found, however, was that when the child receives the pet matters to their social development. The children that received a pet at or after age 5 were found to be more socially adjusted than the autistic children that either had a pet since birth or never had one at all. The researchers reported that humans and pets signal each other when they interact, which allows them to adjust their behavior, and that helps kids with autism learn how to interact with animals as well as humans.3

How can veterinary professionals help?

For families with autistic children that want to adopt a dog, consulting a veterinarian is a good first step. As Carlisle explained, “Dogs may be best for some families, although other pets such as cats, horses or rabbits might be better suited to other children with autism and their particular sensitivities and interests.”2

Veterinarians can help guide families toward finding the best animals that would suit their lifestyle. Veterinarians will also be the first point of contact if that animal becomes sick or has an injury. Creating a relationship with the veterinarian will help put parents’ minds at ease when they are considering whether to bring a dog or other animal into their home.4

For students considering a career in veterinary medicine, there is the option to pursue a degree in veterinary technology. Technicians and technologists in veterinary offices are responsible for observing their animal patients’ behavior and condition, providing nursing care or emergency first aid, and administering medications, vaccines and treatments that have been prescribed by the veterinarian. These responsibilities make certified vet techs very important, not only to veterinarians, but to pet owners, who want to know their beloved animals are receiving complete and comprehensive care.4

1 “Dog ownership benefits families of children with autism,” Science Daily.com, April 14, 2014, http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2014/04/140414150852.htm

2 “Family Dog Can Help Kids With Autism,” Health Day.com, April 15, 2014, http://consumer.healthday.com/general-health-information-16/pets-and-health-news-531/family-dog-could-be-a-boon-for-kids-with-autism-686849.html

3 Ashley Isaacson, “Dogs Help Autistic Children Bond and Grow: Part 1,” Autism Daily Newscast.com, Aug. 10, 2013, http://www.autismdailynewscast.com/dogs-help-autistic-children-bond-and-grow-part-1/1804/ashleyisaacson/

4 “Veterinary Technologists and Technicians,” Bureau of Labor Statistics.gov, http://www.bls.gov/ooh/healthcare/veterinary-technologists-and-technicians.htm#tab-2

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