Autistic Man’s Best Friend: The connection between pets and autism;

Question 2 from the Empathy Quotient: ‘I prefer animals to humans’

Answer: ‘Yes, of course I do, who wouldn’t!?’

And just to prove my point, I have devised a very unbiased scientific experiment using extremely cute photographs of the animals in my life, beside random photographs off the internet of the human equivalent. I think we can all agree, the animals win. I could end this blog post here but fear it would not be very enlightening for those soulless individuals who disagree, and who would much rather be surrounded by people than cute fluffy things who can’t talk.

Research has found that those with autism can, typically, not only relate more to animals, but that animals can be beneficial for their social development. This trait of animal empathy over human empathy has become such an intrinsic part of autism that, as you can see from the first question I posed from the Empathy Quotient, it is now used to diagnose autism spectrum disorders. A lot of people reading this without autism will probably be arguing at this point that they love animals too and they are not autistic(!). Similarly, I imagine there will be individuals with autism out there who cannot stand furry little creatures, and find their unpredictable and unhygienic ways more of a nuisance than a comfort.  It is important to keep in mind that having a love for animals is not in itself an indicator, but when put together with signs such as difficulty relating to people and an obsessive interest in one’s pets, then this could be an indication. During an evaluation of the children Hans Asperger had through his clinic between 1950 to 1980, one of the most common interests of children with Aspergers noted was in fact pets. Indeed practising clinical psychologist Tony Attwood wrote in his book ‘The Complete Guide to Aspergers Syndrome’ how in his experience both ‘adults and children with Asperger’s are sometimes more able to perceive and have compassion for the perspective of animals than humans’.  So why is this the case?

It is believed that the answer lies in the simple nature of an animal’s behaviour. They do not demand from you emotionally and they are unconditionally affectionate. In many ways they are a living system, like a conscious Furby; they get hungry, you feed them and they are happy again. They cannot speak to you or understand what you are saying, so there are no chances of social faux pas’ or miscommunication. When an individual with autism may struggle to make friends, and find themselves  socially  isolated because of their social and commication impairments, a pet can provide unconditional companionship. I believe the relationship between man and animal goes beyond this companionship, and that for those with autism there is a special affinity which draws them to their pets on a much deeper level. There are generally speaking only two situations in films which can make me cry, the first is seeing a child lose their cuddly toy (the tears are for the bear not the child), and also dogs being left behind. I would not describe myself as socially isolated, yet I would say I have an unnaturally strong bond with my unruly Westie, and often think I couldn’t even love my own child any more than I do that dog. When my previous Golden Retriever died I was as upset as I would have been if had been another family member, and took quite some time to come to terms with it. I also once gave CPR and mouth-to-straw resuscitation to a hamster who had fallen off his perch and appeared to be suffering some sort of heart attack, at no point during my many revival attempts did I stop and think ‘it’s just a hamster’.

Professor of animal science Dr Temple Gradnin may be able to shed some light on this connection. In her paper ‘Thinking the Way Animals Do’, she describes how her autism makes it easier for her to understand animals, as her thinking processes are much like an animal’s. She explains how she often thinks in images, not language, much like an animal does. A horse trainer once told her that horses don’t think, they just make associations, to which she concluded that if making associations isn’t thinking, then she does not think either. It is true that those with autism often make strong associations to negative events, developing strange fears; the colour red, for example, is commonly associated with negative feelings for those with autism. Finally another common factor between autistic man and animal is that fear is often the main emotion; both are often fearful of high pitched noises and become overwhelmed easily.  So do people with autism prefer to be with animals and are more empathic towards them than humans because they understand their mental processes better?

For those parents of an autistic child,  who are struggling to find a way to help their child connect with the world, recent research has found that animals can be greatly beneficial. French researchers have found that if a pet is brought into the family after the age of five, the autistic children studied were better able to share with others and offer comfort. Unfortunately for the autistic children who had a pet since birth, the animal did not help improve the child’s social skills and they showed few interactions with the animal. It is possible that bringing the pet in after the age of five acted as a novelty factor and one which brings the family together in new social interactions.

The type of pet does not seem to matter, this will depend on your child’s personality. Tony Attwood believes cats to be autistic dogs, which make them more desirable to individuals with autism. I, however, find cats too unnerving and prefer a lovable dopey dog. As well as providing companionship to the child and bringing them closer to people, having a pet instills confidence and a sense of responsibility and can aid in learning to take care of others and oneself. For me personally, I found my anxiety levels drop once I had my Westie by my side. I started leaving the house a lot more to walk her, and in doing so got chatting to other dog walkers and learning ‘small talk’. Unfortunately I only seem to ever attract groups of drunk youngsters with pitbulls or crazy dog ladies who know all the dogs in the village by name and breed.  It also hasn’t helped that my own dog should probably have an antisocial behaviour order on account of her unpredictable nervous disposition to all other dogs that aren’t Westies, and her ability to provoke even the kindest Labrador into a state of attack, only to jump into my arms whining and demanding attention and instant protection. God I love her!

Read more about Autism and Pets:

Dr Grandin’s paper ‘Thinking the Way Animals Do’

Pet Therapy: How Animals and Humans Heal Each Other

Pets May Help Kids With Autism Develop Social Skills

Extra Reading for Aspies Who Love Animals:

Funny goings on of a Vetinary Nurse Blog

Marley and Me – Fiction

A Friend Like Henry – Memoir of an autistic boy and his best friend, his pet dog Henry

From Baghdad, With Love – True story of a wartime puppy

The Labrador Pact – Fiction

Human Planet – Because essentially we are all animals underneath!

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  1. I’m strange – I like animals, but no more than I like people. Then again, I scored 42 on the Empathy Quotient! I think the only thing that got me diagnosed was the 60 I got in my Systemizing and my narrow interests.

  2. I’ve had pets since birth, but still experienced the many benefits of having them. My cat was adopted when I was 8, though I had another before that. I still have the one I got at 8. He’s my best friend and has been through the worst trials of my life with me. I can’t imagine where I’d be without him, but I doubt it would be good.
    I told someone just today that the weather had better clear enough to be outside in the next few days or I’ll lose my mind because I need to see my “therapist”. She’s a horse who only has a pasture, no barn to give me a dry place to hang with her.
    I’ve found that animal body language is much easier to understand than human body language. I know what my cat and horse are thinking. No idea what the humans around me are thinking. 😛

  3. I’ve always been fascinated by animals. They don’t judge or make demands. I can stim and pace in front of them and be in my own world. They’re not as exhausting as humans. They don’t turn on me because of my autistic traits. And they don’t pretend to like you while all the time laughing behind your back or waiting to stab you in the back.

    Other children in school liked animals too, but not the way I did. I lost myself in their company while the other kids petted the dog/cat on the head while talking to each other and laughing. I shut them out. I shut everything else out. There were only me and the animals. I can make them my whole world. Other people don’t. That’s the difference.

    I don’t have to worry about saying the wrong things all the time, either. I talk baby talk to them and don’t have to worry about how to start small talk, something I never really learned how to do properly.

    Also, there’s this sensory silky or fluffy fur, and I’m a sensory seeker. Can’t stop petting them. Love dog’s silky paws on my shoulders, love their playful bites because it’s sensory to feel their teeth on my skin.

  4. Pingback: Having a dog can improve social skills of children with Autism | Aspertypical

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