Autism and Pets

Apr 26, 2014

Xena checks out what Jonny is reading.
Credit Xena the Warrior Puppy Facebook page

For years people believed that interaction with companion animals was helpful for children with autism, providing them with unconditional love, nonjudgemental friendship, and social interaction.  A new study shows that dogs can provide very real benefits for these children.


April is Autism Awareness Month. Some years ago I was with a group of volunteers taking pets to a school for autistic children. A teacher placed a soft live bunny rabbit in the lap of a six-year-old boy who didn’t seem to know we were even there. After a minute or so, the boy raised his hand and laid it on the bunny’s back. The teacher was amazed, saying she never had seen the boy respond to anything. Somehow, animals get through all our defenses when nothing else can.

People who live or work with autistic children and adults have seen the ability of animals to break through communication barriers. Now, Gretchen Carlisle, a researcher at the University of Missouri, has published the results of her study that looked at the effect of dog ownership in families of children with autism spectrum disorders.

Ninety-four percent of the subject families who had dogs said their children with autism bonded closely with the pets. The animals seem to have a calming influence on the children, helping them interact with other family members and even with friends their own age. The dogs provide additional benefits for parents and non-autistic children in the family, acting as stress relievers, playmates and companions, not to mention the peace of mind that comes with improved quality of life for everyone in the household.

This study confirms what many parents have believed for years, that the presence of a pet can make a world of difference for a child with autism – like Jonny Hickey with his dog Xena.

A rescue dog herself, Xena was found so neglected and emaciated no one thought she would live. With lots of love and care, she flourished and then met 7-year-old Jonny, an autistic boy who was withdrawn and didn’t talk much. Put the two together and it was like magic – a friendship that was meant to be. Jonny started talking all the time. And last year Xena was named the ASPCA Dog of the Year.

Researcher Gretchen Carlisle will now turn her attention to families with autistic children who own other types of pets. But we suspect we already know what she will find, that companion animals improve the quality of life for all of us, even those of us coping with autism, when we’re speaking of pets.