(... are extremely important for children on The Spectrum.)

Concerning Empathy, Relationships, Socialization and Responsibility

This relates more to children than adults, since most autistics will of course decide on their own whether to keep pets. Pets, particularly pets with which one can interact (eg., dogs) are invaluable for the development of a child on the Spectrum.

"The Spectrum" generally means the autism Spectrum, including Asperger's syndrome, HFA, PDD, Kanner's autism, and other autism spectrum conditions. Many of us are comfortable with the generic reference of "autistic".


Pets have the time and patience to interact with a child on a "full time basis".

Pets take some time for care and maintenance, but more than repay that by watching the child.
This makes life easier for the parent, makes it easier to keep babysitters, and can keep the kid out of trouble.

Pets calm the parents.

Pets can sometimes protect the child or aid in socialization.

If one has the time and skill, a dog can be trained as a service animal to watch over someone on the spectrum.
This is a separate subject. Jim Sinclair describes training a service dog for people on The Spectrum. Jim suggests that in most cases, this would involve private training, directed to the person's particular needs.

Which Breed

This depends on circumstances. If you are not familiar, the best approach is to locate a dog which is mostly grown or a fully grown dog. This will give you a very good idea of the dog's temperment early on.

Pets and Children

Introduce a timid child to a pet in a controlled environment.
Pets behave in what an unfamiliar child may consider unpredictable ways, including movements, licking, mouthing. If, for example, the parent holds the pet, the child can approach it at the child's own pace.

Explain as necessary that this is a living being which is dependent on the human family for protection and care. The animal will react in manners which can be expected from that species and the best way to understand this is to learn about the species.

Being with a pet makes it easier for children to interact with other children.
A child (or adult) on the spectrum finds it easy to focus on the animal in a socially appropriate and acceptable way. If the animal is with the child when interacting with other people, the interaction with the people is likely to be accepted.

Having a pet with whom to interact teaches important social skills to children (all children; not just autistics!)
Studies have shown that the percentage of corporate leaders (CEOs) who grew up with pets is substantially greater than the general population.

Pets teach empathy for fellow salient beings.

Pets teach responsibility.
... meaning during daily activities. It would be nice if the kid could take care of the food and cleaning, but that typically doesn't happen.

Don't expect the child to perform most of the daily care.
NT kids don't do it, so why should kids on the Spectrum be any different? It is, of course, a good idea to encourage the child to care for the pet.

Some chores are easy to have a child to do.
This can range from grooming to daily care.

Be careful that the child doesn't abuse the pet.
This happen if the child doesn't recognize the nature and consequences of his/her acts.

Get "durable" pets for young children.
Autistic kids can be clumsy, and handling that may injure a small dog wouldn't phase a large dog.

Again, the advantages of a grown dog help here.

Pets keep kids out of trouble.

Perform discipline "by the book", and never beat your pet (if it's not a life-or-death situation).
For example when housebreaking a dog, realize the dog won't appreciate the relationship between "mess" as a verb and "mess" as a noun. This is the case even if the dog thinks that he's in trouble if there's a mess in the house.

Get a Pet from the Local Shelter

It's usually advantageous to get a grown pet from a shelter because:
  1. You will have saved the animal's life. That fact will not be lost on the child, and will be a subtile, but extremely valuable, lifetime lesson in responsibility and caring.

  2. In the case of dogs, it's easier to train an older dog. Older dogs generally don't need training, but it may be necessary to go to a dog obedience class or other knowledgable person.

    Obedience training is particularly useful for people who are "non-experts". It is common for people to take on a dog, and find the dog unmanagable simply because they don't understand the basics of dog ownership.

  3. The nature and temperment of a grown dog is easy to determine.

  4. In the case of cats, adult cats take a lot less care.
It is possible to obtain particular breeds and particular mixes through breed-specific rescue groups and on-line searches of animal shelters.

back to Relationships index

This is linked to pages on relationships and autistics, and relates to the ability of autistics to establish intimate relationships.

The myth of lack of empathy has been used as some sort of justification for abuse of people on the Spectrum

First written 20 August 02; first posted 21 Aug 02. Last revised 25 Dec 07.

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