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Study: Pets Can Help Autistic Kids Develop Social Behavior (Maybe)

Maxwell feeds his kitten, Steve, with a bottle. Steve, who is female, is named after a Minecraft character.

Don’t expect this to be covered by your insurance, but getting a pet might be just the thing for teaching autistic children to share and comfort.

A new study found that autistic children with pets have better “prosocial behaviors” like sharing and comforting than autistic children without pets. The study, conducted in France and published this week in the journal PLoS ONE, was small, and researchers said that larger studies would be needed to confirm the findings. Interestingly, the study only found the difference when the child’s family adopted a pet when the child was age five or older. Children who had had pets from birth did not show the same results.

Does this mean all parents of autistic children should run out and get a pet? Absolutely not.

“We certainly don’t want families who are already stressed to get the idea that they need to add a pet to their family if that pet is not really wanted,” said Alycia Halladay, PhD to WebMD. Dr. Halladay is director of environmental research for the education and advocacy group Autism Speaks.

I’m going to go ahead and second that because for many parents, I can envision a pet being the thing that sends them over the edge into insanity. I have four kids (two with Asperger Syndrome, an Autism Spectrum Disorder), a husband, and two cats. My 11-year-old daughter would love a dog, but I’m pretty sure I cannot possibly take care of one more living thing without being shipped off to the Nervous Hospital.

However, my daughter, known on the Internet as the Pork Lo Maniac, does love animals. She finds tremendous comfort in our two cats, Luke and Leia.

Our cat, Luke Skywalker. “Luke is a big heavy tub of goo,” reports my 11-year-old daughter.

“When they’re sitting on my lap, the feeling of them on me, the weight–it’s so relaxing. It’s not much weight if it’s Leia, but Luke is a big heavy tub of goo.” So basically our cats are like living, furry, self-heating weighted lap pads.

“Sometimes it’s easier to be with animals than people, because they’re not going to make fun of you or anything,” my daughter said. (Yes, that sound you just heard was my heart breaking.) “They might not understand the words you’re saying, but I feel like if they spoke English, they’d probably be understanding. Especially dogs, dogs just want to make you happy. But still I love all animals equally.”

“I feel so comfortable around them,” she continued. “I just talk to them. With Leia, we have our own little world. We talk about things that would only make sense if you knew about our world.”

“Leia sleeps with me every night because when she tries to get off my bed, I don’t pull her back on. I think she likes how much attention and affection I give her. Plus I make sure that Luke doesn’t bother her. And sometimes I also sing her a lullaby, and assure her that Lukie won’t come to get her, because I’ll take care of it.”

The PLM is referring to the fact that despite being told repeatedly by the Crazy Cat Lady at the pet adoption place that these two cats adored each other, the cats actually hate each other. Part of the problem is that Leia is deaf, and she can’t hear Luke sneaking up on her to “play.” And also, her balance is pretty bad, so the slightest thing knocks her over–let alone a silent, 17-pound cat.

Our deaf cat, Princess Leia. (I know. Such big ears for a cat that can’t hear you.)

“I know she can’t hear me,” said the PLM, “but she can sense that I’m trying to keep her safe and that I love her.”

On the other hand, my six-year-old son Little Dude, who also has Asperger Syndrome, isn’t the biggest fan of most animals. Dogs in particular are always a source of stress.

“They’re loud, and I feel like they will bite me,” he said. “There was one dog that I did like. It wasn’t loud, and it was very gentle with me.”

The biggest problem is that dogs are somewhat unpredictable, which just runs against Little Dude’s grain.

“I’m wondering if they will lick me, and I don’t like licking,” he said. “And they might bite me. They might bark. A bunch of stuff that dogs might do, I don’t like.”

The licking is a pretty big sensory problem for Little Dude, who clarified, “I used to be terrified of when they lick me. I have no idea why I was terrified when they licked me. Now it’s not that I’m scared, I just don’t like it.” Duly noted.

Little Dude used to be afraid of cats, but he’s gotten over that fear as he’s spent more time with them. My parents have two cats that make almost no noise and rarely even move, but he hated them anyway.

“I was so terrified of them, that one time I had to hide in the bathroom,” he remembered. “I was so scared. But then I got used to them, and now I know they’re kind and gentle.”

“Now I love cats. They’re one of my favorite animals. I like their soft meowing, their cute napping. It’s just very sweet. There’s nothing that could go wrong with cats. Except when they fight, of course.”

Little Dude’s ideal pet?

“I like turtles. They walk very slowly with tiny steps. And they make no noise. But they do swim around.”

For many families, like mine, the impact pets can have is palpable. I’m fortunate that some of my readers were willing to share photos of their adorable kids (who happen to be on the spectrum) and their adorable pets!

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  • Luca 1 of 21
    Luca
    "This is my son, Fallon, with his dog, Luca. They love each other so much!" says mom Lei.
  • Harvey 2 of 21
    Harvey
    "My 11-year-old son, Connor, has a love/hate relationship with our 1yr old golden retriever, Harvey," says mom Tina. "Despite (or perhaps as a result of) Harvey's exuberance and excitability, my son learns patience, tolerance, caring for and thinking of someone other than himself and unconditional love."
  • Simon 3 of 21
    Simon
    "There is a lot to consider before bringing a dog into the life of a child with ASD or any other need for that matter," said Tara's mom Alisha, shown here with her Sheltie, Simon. "A lot of work must be done to ensure safety of dog and child. That being said, it's made a huge difference for my daughter!"
  • Casper 4 of 21
    Casper
    "Casper and Kellan," said mom Nicola, of the blog Blogging Kellan. "Cat and boy. One deaf and the other on the spectrum, but they are a pair who communicate through some deeper connection. Always together."
  • Bear 5 of 21
    Bear
    "Bear is my daughter's best friend," says one mom. "He's as active as she is and loves to simply just be with her."
  • Ginger 6 of 21
    Ginger
    "She calms him," Crystal said simply of the bond between her son Jory,9 and their chocolate lab, Ginger.
  • Happy 7 of 21
    Happy
    "The kids named the dog 'Happy,' said mom Kristin. "Of course."
  • Rosie 8 of 21
    Rosie
    "This is Charlie and his grandmother's tripod dog, Rosie," wrote mom Nicole. "According to Charlie, Rosie 'doesn't think she's better than anybody else.'"
  • Shaggy 9 of 21
    Shaggy
    This is 8-year-old Will with his dog, Shaggy. Will's mom said, "Shaggy helps him calm down during his Aspie meltdowns and also keeps his hard-earned empathy skills intact."
  • Stevie 10 of 21
    Stevie
    "Stevie has helped Jessie to become more confident," says mom Jenn. "He comes running to comfort her whenever he hears her crying or upset. He also showers her with kisses every morning when she wakes up. A great dog for us!"
  • Tristan 11 of 21
    Tristan
    "This is Tristan, our 11-year old Great Dane, and our 3-year old son Kellen," said mom Ruth Ann, who blogs at Moon Madness. "They understand each other. With no words spoken, each knows exactly what the other needs. Tristan is his protector…and Kellen makes sure Tristan never goes hungry." My in-need-of-updating blog is
  • Zooey 12 of 21
    Zooey
    "Here is a great picture of Rowan with Zoey," says Rowan's grandmother Sally. "She has remained his constant companion through thick and thin for the past two years. Playing hard when he wants to play, and cuddling when he finally does some 'down' time. Pets are wonderful therapy. Where would we be without them?" Sally said that Rowan also has pet mice that he plays with every day. He even patiently teaches them tricks!
  • Bella 13 of 21
    Bella
    Bella makes Jackson laugh out loud like nothing and no one else can, says Jackson's mom.
  • Bella (again) 14 of 21
    Bella (again)
    Bella checks in on Jackson's younger brother, who is being watched for autism.
  • Bonnie 15 of 21
    Bonnie
    "Francesca doesn't have to negotiate social skills, make chit-chat or figure out where she fits in with our puppy, Bonnie," said Francesca's mom, Sheri. "Licks and snuggles are given to Francesca freely… no strings attached!"
  • Buddy 16 of 21
    Buddy
    "I have boys who don't sleep well," says the blogger behind Feminist Christian, who then jokes, "Does any autistic kid sleep well?"
  • Buddy (again) 17 of 21
    Buddy (again)
    "Our dog Buddy is their sleeping buddy," said this mom. "He cuddles up with them and they sleep far longer and far deeper. When my son is down for a nap and wakes up crying, Buddy FLIES up the stairs to make sure he's okay."
  • Steve 18 of 21
    Steve
    "This is Max bottle feeding his kitten, Steve (a female he named after a Minecraft character)," says mom Carrie, who blogs at Parenting With Aspergers. "Steve helps Max feel calm when he's agitated. She snuggles up to him in the night and wakes him up in the morning. He smiles when he sees her."
  • Steve, a little older now 19 of 21
    Steve, a little older now
    "This is an updated photo of the team!" said Carrie, who's one of my fave bloggers. "When Steve's not running around with her littermates, she is most likely sitting in Max's lap while he plays video games and chats with his cousins. She helps Max feel centered and calm."
  • A horse, of course. 20 of 21
    A horse, of course.
    "My daughter loves her dog and finds snuggling with her very soothing," says Sharla. "But her true obsession is with horses which I cannot allow in the house--or the yard, for that matter."
  • Sunday 21 of 21
    Sunday
    "Here is a picture of my son Dez playing with our cat Sunday," says Jess. "Dez has Aspergers, and Sunday is helping to teach him responsibility. She is also a playmate for him when other kids are being mean. She is a member of the family, and he cares for her very much."

(Photo Credits: All photos used with explicit permission of the families.)

Read more from Joslyn at Strollerderby and at her blog, stark. raving. mad. mommy. You can also follow her on Facebook and Twitter.

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