For families of children with autism, the decision to get a dog can be a challenging one. In addition to the usual considerations of care, cost and training needs all families must consider when adding a dog to the household, ASD families also need to consider whether having a pet will provide therapeutic benefits to children with autism. Studies have shown that owning a pet can provide the following benefits for children on the autism spectrum:
- Improved Interaction
In 2014, a researcher at the University of Missouri studied dog ownership decisions in families of children with autism and found that the benefits of dog ownership included companionship, stress relief and a sense of learned responsibility.
Research fellow Gretchen Carlisle interviewed 70 parents of children who have autism and found that nearly two-thirds owned dogs. Of those parents, 94 percent reported that their child bonded with their dogs. Carlisle said the dogs acted as a “social lubrication” by giving children with autism a way to approach other children and helping them to create conversation when they are approached by others. Many of the families that owned dogs said they chose to get a dog specifically for the benefits for children with autism, Carlisle said.
- Lower stress levels
A 2010 University of Montreal study showed that children with autism who have dogs in their households have lower stress levels than their peers without dogs. Researcher Sonia Lupien and her colleagues measured the stress levels of 42 children with autism by checking the amount of cortisol in their saliva in order to determine their stress levels. Researchers measured the stress levels prior to the experiment, during the introduction of a service dog to the family and after the dog was removed from their homes. On average, Lupien said parents counted 33 problematic behaviors prior to living with the dog and 25 while living with the dog.
- Preventing Wandering
Nearly half of all children with autism will wander off at least once after the age of four, and a quarter will be gone long enough to cause their parents to be concerned, according to research by Autism Speaks.
A service dog can be trained to track an autistic child who is prone to wandering off. These animals are trained to not only keep the child safe but help create independence. If a child is tethered to a service dog, he or she can walk on their own near a parent. Thus, the dog provides support for the child and peace of mind for the parents.
- Preventing self-harm
Self-harm is often a common reaction for a child with autism who is in a frustrating situation and cannot verbalize their frustrations. Clinic-based studies show that self-injurious behavior has been reported in more than 30 percent of children with autism. Service dogs that prevent self-harm inject themselves into situations to protect the child from that behavior. Even if the child is performing a repetitive, non-harmful action, the dog will often put itself between the child and the source of harm.
At Springbrook Autism Behavioral Health, we work with your child to discover which treatments and therapies will have the best results. Our own ASD therapy dog, Jesse, was permanently added to our staff in order to help the children we serve. Our goal is to promote growth and independent living for every child, using whichever means are most effective for each individual. Contact us today for a private consultation or to tour our campus.