Are pets changing the way we treat autism?
Wednesday, September 20th, 2017 | Blog
If you live in one of the 20 million households in the UK with a pet, you will have no doubt got back from a difficult day at work and made a beeline straight for your furry friend for a cuddle to relax and rewind. And this is no surprise, studies show that pets have a positive impact on our mental health and helping lower our stress levels.
Specifically trained ‘Therapy Pets’ are becoming increasingly common for just this reason, and are used in a variety of settings such as care homes and hospitals. However, they can also have a strong impact on those suffering from mental disabilities too - in particular, children diagnosed with autism.
Many studies have shown that children diagnosed with autism develop better social skills when they are living with a pet; with notable improvements in behaviour, focus and the child’s ability to remain calm in new situations. It is believed these improvement come from the non-judgemental relationship formed between the child and pet helping them gain confidence.
Dogs for Good is a UK charity that provides specially trained assistance dogs to support children living with autism and their families. After two years of training, the dogs are able to accompany families doing simple tasks that the child may find challenging, such as shopping and days out. The companions provide a safe and secure atmosphere for the children, which can result in a more independent lifestyle.
When out and about, the dogs wear a harness which has two leads; one is attached to the child and the other is held by a parent or guardian. The dog responds to the parents’ commands to help comfort and direct the child - all the while learning to recognise when the child is feeling stressed or anxious. When the do does sense the child is uncomfortable, to prevent the child from running off it will sit still, limiting the chances of running into a dangerous situation. Dogs for Good provides life-changing support, but like many other charities it is completely reliant on donations.
An amazing story of a young boy whose life was turned around by therapy dogs is Kainoa and his new therapy dog, Tornado. Kainoa’s autism left him feeling extremely uncomfortable when anyone touched him; even stopping his own mother from washing, dressing or even hugging him. Upon receiving Tornado, he soon made a heartwarming connection with the Golden Retriever, and would happily lie with him of his own free will - the first time his mother had ever seen him willingly allow anyone to touch him whilst feeling safe and unhurt.
As well as dogs, animals that can help provide therapy and support for those living with autism include cats, rabbits and even guinea pigs. With more and more research done into the positive effects animals can have on people living with mental health disabilities, they are only set to support an even wider range of sufferers in the years to come. Over the coming weeks, we will be looking into more of the ways animals can support us, which you can follow on our news page and social media.
If you have had any positive or life changing stories and experiences after living with a pet, let us know in the comments - we would love to hear them and may even share some on our Facebook page!