The autism spectrum and pets

A few years ago my elder daughter asked if she could have a couple of guinea pigs for her 11th birthday.  We agreed on the basis that she would take care of them – we thought it would be good for her to take on this responsibility.  So off we trotted to the local pet shop where she chose two cute male guineapigs – one with brown and spiky hair that the children named Coco and another that was short-haired and had spalshes of brown and white that they named George.

I have to admit to not being very keen on guinea pigs, I’m more of a cat woman myself, yet very soon they worked their magic on all of us.  They used to squeak to us whenever we were around and it was also great fun watching them interact and munch their way through loads of dandelion leaves, lettuce and cabbage leaves.  Even more exciting for our children was their early escape attempts around the garden which freaked me out a bit knowing they would be easy food for the foxes and the occasional bird of prey we get in the garden.

Therapy for our son

What we didn’t expect though was our son’s devotion to them.  He loved looking after them, touching them and talking to them.  He was brilliant.  Eventually, when we started to better understand our son’s autistic disorder, we could see how these animals were also helping him recover from meltdowns when his ability to connect with the world was impaired.  I usually waited towards the end of a meltdown when his communication had recovered sufficiently for me to work out whether he wanted a guineapig on his lap.  If he allowed me to place one of the pigs on his lap he would then stroke and talk to it which soothed him further.  There were also times when he would communicate through one of the guineapigs rather than have face-to-face communication with me and his dad.

It was such an unexpected thing, a wonderful thing, to see how a little animal could help my son so much.  I have always appreciated and enjoyed the natural world but I didn’t realise how animals could potentially be a form of therapy for autistic people.

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9 Responses to The autism spectrum and pets

  1. Blue Sky says:

    Well what an interesting piece and unexpected! I had always said absolutely no way to pets as I just don’t see how I could manage the cost and the time involved in caring for them. Perhaps I ought to have a rethink…. (over from Life on the Spectrum)

    • Aspie in the family says:

      It surprised me too, how my son took to these animals and how much they soothed him. Hopefully we’ll be getting some more soon!

  2. Aspie in the family says:

    >Hi SuperLittleMen – when my son was a lot younger (3 to 6 years old or thereabouts) he used to be absolutely terrified of dogs and was disinterested in most other animals too. Its only in the last few years that he has engaged with them (though not cats), which has totally taken us by surprise. So you never know, he may change.

  3. SuperLittleMen says:

    >My son is terrified of all animals and I have no idea why. We got 2 guinea pigs (Batman and Robin!) and our youngest is the one who adores them, but then he adores all animals. Isaac though will watch them, and kind of throws food to them but he wont touch them. Interestingly their old childminder use to take them to see her friends horse and once Isaac got use to Frolic, he use to spend hours grooming her. I want to try and encourage him with animals, but he says he doesnt want to go horse riding and freaks out when we talk about maybe getting a dog. I feel that having a pet to stroke would be something he would enjoy.

  4. Aspie in the family says:

    >Thank you Fiona. I think the work these special schools do for our children is brilliant. Since my son has got into more specialist provision, he has experienced a range of animals and he has surprised us all including his tutor.

  5. Fiona says:

    >Occasionally the head teacher at J's school invites organisations to bring animals in for the children to experience. Last year he invited the kielder birds of prey centre. Neither the staff or ourselves imagined J would take any notice of the birds and teacing assistants were posted next to him ready to take him off to soft play at the first sign of boredom or stress. Yet to everyone's astonishment he sat through out the entire show, particularly mesmerised by a large owl that blinked at him. I think for a child like J the simplicity of an animal is probably comforting. Heaven knows what he makes of us complicated 'normal' humans!! Lovely story!

  6. Aspie in the family says:

    >To Jen – its lovely to share something positive that works.

    To MmeLindt – thankyou. I agree, pets are a great comfort to children, in fact to us all.

  7. MmeLindt says:

    >What a lovely post. Pets can be very comforting for children. Our dog senses when the children are upset and goes to sit with them. If one of them cries, she comes running to make sure they are ok.

  8. Jen says:

    >This is just lovely and fabulous that the guinea pigs are so soothing for him. Meltdowns are hard on everyone but I always imagine they are very very distressing for the child having it and to have the option of the guinea pig to help calm him is great. I must keep this in mind for later on, when my son is a little older. Thank you for sharing :) Jen

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