Can Pets Help Children Affected by Autism Improve Their Social Skills?

Therapies and Resources for Children with Autism & Families

Recent news stories have highlighted the positive effects that a pet can have on the behavioral development of children affected by autism. Keeping in mind that research on this topic is still new and often debated, some studies have shown that introducing a pet, such as a dog or rabbit, to a special needs child can strengthen social skills such as communication, empathy, and engagement.

While it is important to remember that all children have unique sensitivities and will respond differently to the presence of an animal, here are several ways that regularly interacting with a pet might benefit a child with autism.

  • Strengthened communication. In social situations, a pet can serve as a bridge between an autistic child and his or her peers. For example, a child who is hesitant to speak in a group setting may be more likely to join a conversation if others are talking about his or her dog, a subject that is familiar and safe.
  • Improved interaction. Children with autism struggle with assertion, a skill that requires the confidence to join an activity or conversation. A child who is playing with an animal, as opposed to an inanimate object like a toy, may be more likely to make facial expressions or physical contact—social cues that are essential when interacting with others.
  • Better understanding of empathy. Pets such as dogs and cats offer unconditional companionship to their owners. This bond can be a particularly strong source of comfort to children with autism, as well as encourage empathy toward other animals and people.
  • Decreased stress. Autistic children often experience sensory overload as the result of being very sensitive to the sights, sounds, and movement around them. For example, some children may be disoriented or scared by bright lights or loud noises. A pet can provide a point of reference in an overwhelming sensory environment, helping a child remain calm and more at ease.

If you are considering a pet or seeking other ways to strengthen your child’s social skills, contact Peak Potential Therapy today. We offer expert, compassionate advice to meet your child’s unique needs.