Children with learning disabilities can struggle with loneliness, responsibility, and difficulty making friends. As parents, we must find creative ways to overcome those challenges.
One way to help them? Get a pet, such as an autism companion dog. Today, we’ll talk about some of the best pet for an autistic child or a child with special needs.
Before You Get a Pet
Before selecting a pet, be aware of what’s involved in taking care of it and how your child will handle it. Ask yourself the following questions:
- Can my child safely handle the pet?
- If my child will not care for this pet, can I?
- Am I willing to provide training and supervision for a pet until my child can?
- How much will raising a pet cost, including specialized training for my child?
- Does my child have pet allergies?
Autistic Children and Pets: The Benefits
Properly managed, getting your disabled or autistic child a pet can have great benefits for a child with special needs, including
- Teaches your child responsibility. You might not think so at the outset, but I’m convinced that if we raise the bar for our children, they can achieve more than they thought possible. Take time to train your child with your pet’s care.
- A powerful motivator. What a great way to set a child up for success! Most kids love at least some kind of animal. If you can combine motivation and teaching, your child will be positively impacted.
- Comfort and love. Dogs – and some cats – love unconditionally, giving your child a friend in times of need. Petting cats and dogs also has a calming effect on the body.
- Shows a child how to treat others. Your child can learn skills about treating others kindly and cautiously when you own a pet.
- Demonstrates caring for health. Regular feeding, treats, toileting, cleaning cage/pet areas, exercising your pet, vet visits, etc., show your child how a living creature needs to be cared for. This reinforces how your child should take care of himself while teaching him nurturing skills.
- Pet therapy for autism. A dog is not for every child, but if a child or family qualifies, a service pet can provide your child with more independence. Additionally, some of the costs of raising, caring and training your dog may be offset with waivers or insurance.
- A welcome distraction. My daughter has been completely calmed after laying her eyes on our cat or the class hamster at school. This kind of distraction can have a calming effect during rough times.
- Benefits skills of autistic children. A 2014 study from the University of Missouri showed that autistic children who had any kind of pet had improved social skills! This is not the first study to show this kind of benefit. Another study showed that autistic children displayed “a sharp drop in anxiety and social stress when playing with animals as compared to engaging in other activities whether independently or with their peers.”
Choosing the Right Pets For Children With Autism And Disabilities
Before buying pets for children with autism or special needs, you should carefully research and consider the different pet options as well as breeds. Here are some of the pros and cons of popular pets:
- Dogs: Dogs make great pets for children with autism and special needs because they will love your child unconditionally. As mentioned, you can also get a service dog for certain conditions, like autism. That said, dogs are the equivalent of having another child. They require a lot of maintenance, care while you’re away and each breed has its own requirements. For example, some dogs won’t be happy in a yard and must be walked 2-3 times a day. Do your homework on what breeds are kid-friendly, especially for kids who play rough. You may want to foster before adopting, and you should know the dog’s background.
- Cats: Cats have quite distinct personalities, as you will learn if you visit a cat rescue center. You can also get a hairless cat if your child is allergic. However, cats are not nearly as friendly as dogs and many will scratch or bite if provoked. Our cat, Bello, seems to understand that Zoe has disabilities and has never scratched or even swatted her but this is not true for my other daughter. Cats can bond with people, but it’s a different experience than a dog. Don’t expect to roughhouse a cat but they love playing, grooming, and petting – when they’re in the mood.
- Small Animals: My daughter has done very well with mice, gerbils, and hamsters at her school. She loves to feed, hold and pet them. That said, I’d be hesitant to bring one of these pets into my home. I’d worry she would open the cage when we weren’t looking.
- Reptiles: If you don’t feel safe having a pet your child can hold or touch, reptiles might be a good option. I’m not a big fan of snacks, but most pet stores also carry turtles or a variety of small lizards. Keep in mind that some reptiles must be fed mice or insects, so if your child is squeamish about this, you might want to avoid these. Make sure your child doesn’t let this pet get loose.
- Fish: Fish are a great “starter” pet and the easiest is a betta fish, who do not require anything but a basic tank (cleaned regularly) and the right food. The downside is you must raise them alone, so if your child was looking for a “Nemo” tank, they are out of luck. Additionally, fish die very easy which may confuse your child – or it can be a teaching tool! Start with low budget fish too (beta and saltwater fish can be pricy) as you might go through a few quickly. Tank systems can take up a lot of space in your home even if you get a small one so make sure you have the room and money for the initial investment.
Teaching Your Child Pet Responsibility
Now comes the tricky part: how to teach your child responsibility! There are a few things you can do to help your child learn how to treat a pet.
1. Expose Your Child Before Buying The Pet
If you feel ready to get a pet, please expose your child before bringing one home. If you have a friend or family member with a pet that your child would enjoy, schedule some “supervised visits” with the animal. Have them tell your child how they care for them. You can also spend time at local adoption centers or events at places like pet stores. We did a lot of this before bringing home Bello! Classroom pets are a great trial experience too.
2. Acclimate Your Pet When Your Child Is Not Around
The worst thing to do is bring home a new pet – especially a skittish one – when your child is around. Kids get so excited they can scare a pet that must adjust to his new home or distract you while acclimating new fish to a tank. Get your pet in and used to the house for a bit. Cats love to find a hiding place, dogs need to sniff everything and fish need to adapt to the water. A jumpy, excited child can make that much more difficult.
3. Use PECS And Images To Teach Your Child
Some things your child will need to know is how to gently touch an animal, how to be quiet around an animal, how to hold him, and not to bury his face in blankets. We got this laminated sheet from school. Make sure your child knows this is a living animal and not a toy. You can also use these to list your pet’s needs. Adapt this for your pet and for strange pets. As your child gets to know and love his own animal, he may think it’s ok to treat someone else’s pet the same way. Teach him how to approach pets that are not his.
4. Give Your Child Time to Adjust
Even after your pet is acclimated, your child is going to be excited about for a long while. Give him time to adjust before assigning chores or setting up the dog bed in his room. A new pet is like a new family member and everyone has to get used to the routine, even if he is a lone betta fish.
5. Teach Them To Love Their Pet
Of course, you can teach your child to feed and care for your pet with an image chart. However, I find that showing your child how to love your pet is just as good. For a fish, have your child take a pinch of food and drop it in the tank. (You may need to store the food out of reach, or your child will dump more food in liberally whenever he wants.) I showed my children how much our cat LOVES gets a brushing. Cats are SO expressive when they are happy that my girls got excited and now they LOVE to brush him!
Loving Your Pet
The best part of having pets for children with autism and special needs is the love you get! Our cat is more than just a pet, more than just Zoe’s charge. Bello provides my daughter therapy, comfort, joy, and responsibility. He makes us all laugh and feel better, and he has taught my autistic daughter to be nurturing. He loves us and we are simply crazy about him! Our family wouldn’t be the same without Bello. In turn, we show him our love by nourishing him with our favorite brand – Purina – and making him purr with delicious treats.
You should consider pets for children with autism and learning disabilities. This kind of companion can teach your child, grow his skills and become a beloved family member. I highly recommend you consider sharing this experience with your child and watch a beautiful friendship grow!