Autism (Autistic Children) and family pets
Created with approval to post, from the mailing list of “The Association of Professional Humane Educators”

I had a person contact me that works with a 10 year old autistic child who is struggling with his relationships with his pets. He has a tendency to use threatening language and sometimes takes it out on the family pets. One day he loves them, the other day he wants to hit or pinch him. Is anyone aware of any work that has been done to help autistic children with their pets? If you know of something or have any suggestions that I could pass on to help make this a better relationship, I would appreciate it.

Re: Autism and family pets

I wanted to offer this link to a book titled, "Second Chance - How Adoption Saved A Boy With Autism and His Shelter Dog"
While the book may or may not provide the exact answer you are looking for the author's email address is available at the bottom of the review. She may be able to offer some insight to your question.

Re: Autism and family pets

There is an organization called Green Chimneys in downstate NY...

They have constant camps and educational programs for children with all sorts of mental and physical disabilities. ...lots of contacts and info. on their website.  Hope it helps.

Re: Autism and family pets

The organization:
works Service Dogs with kids who have Autism. The dogs are trained to provide unique supports to these kids when they're tantruming, demonstrating obsessive, repetitive behaviors and wandering off into potential danger. They may be a resource for how to help the family work with the child and the dog.

Also, the child's behavior is telling me that he is unable to verbalize his wants, needs or frustrations and might need a Speech and Language Therapist to teach augmentative communication.

Re: Autism and family pets

I do have some experience in this field, as my son, who is 19 years old, is autistic and legally blind. He did not, however, lose his sight till he was 10 years old. The first assessment in these situations is how profound the Autism is; in other words there are low functioning & high functioning autistics and then there is Asperger Syndrome, which I refer to as Autism Lite because most Asperger cases I have seen are fairly high functioning.

Animals do not make decisions based on emotions. Autistic children likewise live their lives under the same auspices; emotions play almost no role in their processing. It is a strange dichotomy because of this emotional void; autistics are, in many respects, more animal-like.

Although autistics can demonstrate a high attraction to animals, most autistic children do not see animals as living beings. In some cases, they can't differentiate a living animal from a stuffed animal with respect to compassion and emotions. So a concept such as caring and respecting an animal virtually makes no sense to them.

I believe their attraction to animals comes from the fact that autistics rely on sight, sound and smell to evaluate their world; they key in on the animal's body language and energy. So in the same manner that an over-stimulated Pekinese can bring a Newfoundland to the breaking point you have the same principal happening with an autistic child. Autistics' hearing is amplified far beyond ours so certain noises, like a dog's bark or a person's voice can send them over the edge.

While specific noises & amplitude of sound can vary from person to person it is still an important piece of the puzzle. For instance, my son, in particular has trouble with my Great Pyrenees barking because it is slightly higher pitched than my 185 pound Newfoundland/ Mastiff which is very, very deep in tone. As Kellan ages, I have been able to reason with him to some degree as to not going after Galeena when she barks but the fact remains, in his world, if someone or something is causing him considerable discomfort he's going to try and stop it. He does not comprehend that he can hurt this animal.

After 8 years as a Humane Educator, I have witnessed many animal relinquishments because an autistic child is hurting the family pet. You have to start with what you can change. Can I stop the autism? No. Can I monitor the interaction between my son and my Pyrenees? Yes. Before anyone with an autistic child decides to adopt an animal you have to think seriously about breed, how much it barks, couch potato versus zero-ten in 5 seconds because it is the energy the child will key in on.

When a child suddenly changes his/her reaction to an animal in the home you need to go back and dissect the components, explore all aspects of the situation, before & after. What did the animal do to set the child off? Did it bark? Did it jump up the child's bed or knock over something that belongs to the child? There has to be a reason.

If you can do something about the problem, do so. If it means separating the animal from the child for a while, do so. 

Lastly, if a child is in a situation where reasoning is not an option, then you re-direct or remove (child or animal). Again, careful consideration must be made when considering a family pet with an autistic child because although an attraction may exist, there are many, many variables to consider.

I must say, having an autistic child has actually deepened my respect & admiration for animals. Kellan's vocabulary is very limited. Other than a few words, we have never had a conversation and yet, I know this child as well as I do myself. When language is your primary source of communication, it's amazing how much of the world you miss.  

Brianna (contact info follows)

Brianna Beauvait
Humane Educator, Media, PAWS Dogs,
Camp Director & Volunteer Coordinator
Longmont Humane Society
9595 Nelson Road
Longmont, Colorado 80501
(303) 772-1232 Ext. 264
(303) 772-2219 - Fax
Re: Autism and family pets

I may have a little insight for you. My son, now 14 is mildly autistic. We always say that he "goes by the book". That means, in his mind that all rules must be obeyed. So in relating to our dogs, if a dog is naughty like, jumping up, he must be stopped at all costs, even if it's loud or violent behavior. In his mind he's helping the dog do the right thing because rules must not be broken. I have seen in autistic children that there aren't any gray areas, only black and white. That can also explain how violence can be justified if "rules are being broken" in the mind of an autistic child. This also makes my child a straight "A" student because he follows directions so well and has the cleanest bedroom of all of us!

Re: Autism and family pets


As many in the group have posted, first the child's place on the Autism spectrum needs to be known. In my work with children on the spectrum I have found that social stories and social activity cards have been very powerful. You may have noticed that the child does well when there is a rule to follow and when he or she has had time to practice a behavior.

By social stories I mean a short story in which a child interacts with a pet. The child in the story exhibits a desired behavior and this story is discussed. The simple actions (desired behaviors) are brought to the forefront and reinforced through simple questioning. This story is read and discussed over and over to help the rule become part of the child's social norm. You can Google these and find out more and get some examples.

The social activity cards help a child to break down simple actions and get a positive response. For example, if the parent wants to create a bond between the boy and the dog (and keep the dog from fearing the boy, etc.) an activity card can be created that has step-by-step directions in giving the dog a treat. These actions can be placed on a Velcro board and then removed when each step is complete. Example: card one- boy gets dog treat from box, card two- boy puts treat box away, step three- boy sits down on the floor, step four- boy calls dog (if speech is in his range)or motions for dog, step five- boy hold treat flat in his hand/ palm up for dog, step six, dog takes treat (boys hand gets a little wet), step seven- boy says "Good --dog's name--", you can add more or less depending on the need.   This can eventually lead to a social activity of gentle petting.

I found these tools to be very helpful, but each child is different. Start small and allow for success. Either way the two should be supervised when together.  Best of luck.

Along these lines but not necessarily with autistic children I am designing a workshop for foster parents who have foster children who are aggressive or abusive to animals. The foster parents want to know how to handle this, what to do. Besides number one making sure the child is in therapeutic treatment (I have developed a program to do this) and 24/7 monitoring can you folks give me suggestions of things to include for foster parents to do with the children and/or resources to tap for such information. Thank you.

"The animals of the world exist for their own reasons. They were not made for humans any more than black people were made for whites or women for men." Alice Walker

"Animals may aid us in our everyday lives, in our dreams, meditations. Since they were created before humans, they are closer to the SOURCE and can act as allies, guides and familiars in our search for wholeness." An Inuit woman

Re: Autism and family pets

We have had stunning success in using TAGteach to help children with autism control and modify their behaviour and decrease their frustration. I think this may be in part because the delivery of feedback does not involve language or emotion. It allows a form of communication that autistic children seem to be able to participate in. TAGteach is like clicker training applied to people. We use an actual clicker (a tagger to TAGteachers) to tell the child "yes that was right". There is no force or physical prompting and the child is essentially in control of the situation.

One mother told us that her 9-year old severely autistic non-verbal child took the tagger from her at one point and tagged her for something that she had done. This was the first time in his life that he had communicated with her in any way.

TAGteach may be very helpful with this boy and easy to apply since he is already sometimes doing the desired behaviour. It is easier to increase behaviours that already exist than to create new ones. I would invite you and the parents of the child to ask questions at our TAGteach Yahoo group.

There are lots of experienced TAGteachers and dog trainers and some autism parents on that list who will have ideas.
We have a website for TAGteach and autism that cites some of the scientific research results and other information. We are currently working on an online course to teach people the basics of TAGteach. It will be available soon. I will keep you posted.
Here is a link to a mother's story that is very heart warming:  

Re: [aphe] Autism and family pets

I asked a relative who is a child occupational therapist about this question; her response is below. I hope it adds to the other great responses on this topic.

Autistic children typically do not relate well to pain or emotions, even in animals. Depending upon the level of involvement, some autistic children understand more than others. One thing to consider is that almost all
autistic children exhibit varying degrees of obsessive compulsive disorders. They are unable to think in terms of concepts or ideas - almost all ideas have to be presented as concrete (absolute). We often use Social Stories with Autistic children. From this scenario it could possibly read something like:

“.................. I live with my mom and dad and my little sister Sally. We have one cat and her name is Missy. We have a dog named Buffy. Sometimes when I get really mad or upset I yell at Missy and Buffy. Sometimes I even want to hit them. It is not nice to hit or pinch our pets. Hitting and pinching hurts. When I yell at them they act nervous and that is not a nice thing to do. I will not hit or pinch or yell at our pets. Instead of doing something that hurts I will bounce on my ball or jump on my trampoline.  I love our pets. They love me too.”

A story can be adapted for the exact scenario. The idea behind social stories is that they are read to the child frequently. It would be a good idea to add pictures of all the family members including the pets. By frequently reading the story himself or having it read, the child will begin to incorporate better behaviors.

Another idea:

Involve this child in caring for the pets at whatever level he can. Autistic children respond well to schedules. If the child is very involved he may benefit from a “picture schedule: --  Actual photos of him would be good. It may look something like this:

The first photo may show him/her picking up the empty food dish.

The second photo may show him/her scooping the appropriate amount of food into the dish.

The third photo may show him/her putting the food away.

For a higher level child with autism, a schedule can be written out, with a checklist component.