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Learn About Navigating Autism and Pets and Service Animals

by Jaime Friedman

March 07, 2023


For many families, pets provide an added element of support and companionship. Teaching your child to be safe around animals and to be respectful of pets can help reinforce developing social skills, and there are even service animals trained to assist with tasks based on the needs of an individual. 

Meeting Familiar and Unfamiliar Animals

Whether your child feels nervous around animals or excited, it is important to teach them how to respect wild animals, pets and pet owners. If your child is naturally drawn to animals, you should explain that wild animals need us to respect their boundaries. You can work on distinguishing wild animals from pets and explain that wild animals are not accustomed to human interaction. Therefore, they may feel uncomfortable or threatened if they encounter a human.

Pets are usually trained and bred to be approachable companions, but a collar around an animal’s neck does not always indicate that it is friendly. Parents can set their own standards for how to treat pets, but the first step to meeting any pet should be to ask permission from the owner. Not all pets are friendly, and some may have problems with children specifically. The best way to know is to ask the owner without walking right up to their pet first. Even if, for example, you and your child meet a friendly dog in the park, the owner may have some tips on how to approach. They may warn you that their dog jumps up on people when excited, or they could tell you to move slowly because the dog is shy. If you or your child asks a pet owner permission to see their animal and they seem unsure in their response, err on the side of caution and remind your child to keep their distance.

If your child receives permission to pet an animal, even a family pet, you can follow these guidelines for a safe interaction:

  • Set Boundaries: Before meeting any pets, talk about ground rules for respecting animals and their space. Parents can talk through hypothetical scenarios while setting boundaries to make sure their child understands.
  • Know the Warning Signs: Explain the warning signs of distress in whichever animal your child plays with. For cats, watch for hissing and tail swishing, and for dogs, you can listen for growling.
  • Teach by Example: Feel free to involve yourself in play between a pet and your child. Parents can monitor the interaction up close while also modeling respectful behaviors towards animals.
  • Supervision is Key: Some level of supervision is required to meet any pet, but if a child is new to interactions with pets, or if the pet is new to interactions with children, parents should watch closely. Caring for animals is another new skill children learn to master, and like with other skills, everyone develops at their own rate.

Encountering Service Animals

Service animals act as supplemental support for those dealing with different types of disorders or sensory deficits.  Whatever the breed, species or type of support it provides, a service animal will be wearing some type of vest to indicate that they are working. Some service animals, like guide dogs for the blind, may also be equipped with a harness on their back.

Not all service animals have signs on their vests saying so, but they are all working while they are in public. They can legally enter buildings that pets are prohibited in, and the public is expected to let service animals work. If you see an animal wearing a service vest, do not approach them or ask to pet them.

Autism Support Dogs & Animal Therapy

Mental and behavioral health providers are finding interactions with pets and types of animal therapy to be beneficial for children with autism spectrum disorder. On a page from the Autism Speaks website, the author cites multiple studies with the conclusion that children with Autism are often more socially developed if they have had a pet. Even short visits with animals have led to temporary improvements in social behaviors in some cases.

Depending on the child’s level of need, there are several ways to receive support from an animal. ABA Centers of America explains the differences between service dogs, therapy dogs, emotional support dogs and pets on their website. One or more of these services could be recommended, depending on the intensity of support necessary. Service dogs provide constant support at any hour of the day, while pets offer chances to practice social skills at the end of a long day out of the house. If service dogs and pets are the two extremes, therapy and emotional support animals lie in the middle of the spectrum. Emotional support animals cannot be denied housing based on pet policies, but they do not go into schools and businesses like a service animal would. Therapy animals work with the provider; this means sessions with a therapy animal will usually need to be scheduled. 

Autism Support Dogs provide children with comfort in social situations, and they can help prevent problem behaviors like eloping. They can even be trained to recognize a sensory overload, so they can provide support if their owner feels overwhelmed. Autism presents differently in each case, but service animals can assist with communication skills, social interactions and basic life skills. You can ask your mental or behavioral health provider if any of these animal support services could help your child.

If you would like to see an Autism Support Dog in action, you can watch this clip from a New York news station about a young boy being diagnosed with Autism during the pandemic and receiving a service dog to help develop social his skills while everyone was still in lockdown.