Best pets for autistic children

Pets can provide companionship, calming and teach responsibility. But what are the best pets for autistic children?

Our autistic daughter persistently asked for a pet for a couple of years. But we felt that having sensitive animals at home in a house with constant loud noise, meltdowns, screaming and autistic dysregulation wasn’t fair. Plus, we wanted our kids to have the motivation and skill-levels to be able to help look after a pet. The best animal for our kids was the one that could provide calming, encourage self-regulation and quiet, be social enough to chat to and pet, be easy to care for, and not be aggressive or loud as that would be scary. But what did we end up adopting?

What are the benefits of pets for autistic children?

Having a pet animal can give many benefits, including

  • having a non-judgmental friend to provide company
  • supporting emotional regulation by reducing anxiety, decreasing blood pressure and being calming
  • teaching responsibility and empathy in caring for an animal
  • improving verbal, social skills and play development as the child interacts with the pet
  • reduce the anxiety or ‘meltdowns’ associated with transitions or new situations and people
  • protect the child from dangerous situations or running away

What are the best pets for autistic children?

Depending on what are the biggest concerns in behaviour for your child, you may pick different pets.

Benefits of dogs for autistic children

For a child that wanders off frequently or is often in risky situations, an assistance dog may be best. Service dogs or autism assistance dogs can be trained to provide weighted pressure when a child is heightened. They can also accompany the child outside the home to support them in new or stressful situations such as school or therapy sessions. Assistance dogs can also be trained to find a child who has run off, or put their body in front of a child to reduce harm or risky situations.

Dogs can also provide an outlet for physical activity (as part of sensory regulation) as they need regular exercise. However, depending on the size of the dog, some children may feel scared around them and not be comfortable interacting with the dog at all. Dogs can also be expensive to keep and maintain health through vet visits.

Benefits of cats for autistic children

If a dog is too big and scary for your child, a cat may be a good alternative. Cats can be cuddled and stroked to provide calming and reduce blood pressure when anxious. However, some cats may not be as affectionate or tolerant of company, and use their claws to lash out when upset. Some cats can also be highly independent and may not provide the social company you’re looking for in a pet.

Benefits of guinea pigs for autistic children

Guinea pigs are a pocket pet that can be well suited to children with autism. They are super cute and easy to look after. Guinea pigs can be carefully cuddled and patted in a lap, and become quite social if their enclosure is in a family living environment. They will come up to the enclosure edge and ‘wheek’, seeking pats and food when you wander into the room. Guinea pigs are prey animals so more than one is required. However, this can also prompt your child to be quiet and calm around the guinea pigs so they don’t scare them, supporting children to be well regulated around the pets.

Guinea pigs do poop a lot, and if you’re allergic to hay or hay smells then you won’t enjoy their company near you indoors. However, if you can invest a little bit of time twice a day for cage cleanups, and have time to build relationships and tame your guinea pigs, they can become great calming pets for autistic kids.

Other pets

Birds, fish, frogs and reptiles may not be the best pets if you’re looking for social interaction. If they mostly stay in their cage under heat lamps or water, cuddling them to reduce anxiety could be impossible.

Conclusion: which pet should you get?

Whatever your reason, having a pet can be great for autistic children. They may only seem ready for a pet when they are older (middle or upper primary) compared to other children. But they can still benefit from the calming, social and responsibility benefits of pets.

In the end, we went with guinea pigs. Super cute. Super poop. Super calming. And they kinda remind us of capybaras too.

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