Kid Holding Hamster

Numerous studies have shown that pets can have a huge impact on human health. People interacting with pets have less stress, lower blood pressure and cholesterol, and increased levels of exercise. The benefits pets can have on people have been demonstrated in numerous social settings including hospitals, nursing homes, prisons and psychiatric facilities. Recent studies have shown that the interaction of pets with children on the autistic spectrum may also help encourage positive social behavior. Autistic children are often drawn to these animals and are calmer, happier and more focused in the presence of these pets.

Does Species Matter?

Studies examining autistic children’s reaction to pets have focused primarily on dogs and horses. Recently, however, other pets have been included in this research. For example, in a study at the University of Queensland in Australia, 99 children from the ages of 5 to 13, some of whom were autistic and others who were not, were observed interacting with either toys or two classroom pet guinea pigs. When the autistic children interacted with guinea pigs, they engaged in 55% more social behaviors than when they interacted with toys. With the guinea pigs present, autistic children were less likely to cry and more likely to smile, talk and accept the approach of other kids.

The study concluded that inclusion of a pet in an autistic child’s activities may increase socialization with both other children and adults. Importantly, these guinea pigs were not trained therapy animals but simply classroom pets that were used to being around children.

The effect pets may have on an autistic child may depend on the age at which the child interacts with the animal. A study conducted at the Autism Resource Center at Hospital Bohars in France looked at autistic children, ages 5 to 16 years, attending a day-care facility. The study compared 12 autistic children who got a pet after the child turned 5 with 12 non-pet-owning autistic children (matched with pet-owning children for age, gender and language skills). Significantly, autism experts consider ages 4 to 5 years to be the time at which the severity of autism most significantly affects development. In this study, pet-owning children were better able to share toys and food with both parents and other kids and better able to comfort others than the pet-less children were.

Interestingly, these findings held true regardless of the type of pet: dog, cat, hamster, or rabbit. Similar findings have been noted in studies of children interacting with turtles. French researchers theorized that when people interact with pets, both person and pet react to each other’s nonverbal cues by adjusting their own behaviors. In addition, pets may distract autistic children from stress-producing stimuli, thereby reducing their anxiety.

Exotic Pets and Autistic Children

No one knows definitively why pets help improve autistic children’s social skills. Several experts feel that since many autistic children seek sensory stimulation, the act of touching a pet regardless of the type may be very comforting. Other autistic children, however, are averse to sensory stimulation, reacting negatively to touch. While studies have yet to prove this, my theory as an exotic animal veterinarian who has worked with autistic children owning exotic pets is that very active dogs or fast-moving cats may be overwhelming to children resistant to touch; smaller, calmer exotic pets, such as guinea pigs and slow-moving reptiles (turtles, tortoises, snakes and some lizards) may be less overwhelming to these children. Tactile-averse children may benefit from just watching exotic pets through the glass of an aquarium without having to touch them.

Since many experts feel that autistic children benefit from owning a pet by learning empathy and responsibility from grooming, feeding and caring for the animal, certain lower-maintenance exotic pets, such as guinea pigs, hamsters and gerbils, may be easier to care for than dogs who need to be walked often; these exotic animals may be a better first pet for an autistic child.

Regardless of type of animal, the unconditional acceptance a pet has for an autistic child, who is often judged and reacted to negatively by other children, is another great reason for an autistic child to have a pet. Small exotic pets whom an autistic child may care for more easily may also bring comfort to these children’s caretakers who may feel isolated or frustrated at times.

When considering bringing a pet into their homes, regardless of the pet’s species, families of autistic children should do a trial run to be sure that their child doesn’t react aggressively or violently to the animal and will respond to reminders encouraging gentle interaction or handling. Pets must be introduced slowly, under careful adult supervision, and children’s reactions must be monitored closely to ensure that they don’t unintentionally hurt or scare these animals with physical actions or verbal outbursts. Abrupt reactions may startle even slow-moving, quiet exotic pets, causing them to run away, bite or scratch.

Initially, depending on where they are on the autistic spectrum, autistic children should start by just observing these animals, without touching them; if they are calm when watching these pets, they can be guided to touch them gently. If both children and pets remain calm after this initial limited physical contact, kids may eventually be allowed to hold and play with their pets.

This progression from looking to touching to holding may take several visits with the animals and should not be rushed. If at any point the pet or the child appears upset or uncomfortable, the interaction should be stopped. The benefits of pets to autistic children are not magical or immediate but take time to develop under careful adult supervision.