Do Autistic People Get on Better with Animals?

Explore why autistic people often get on better with animals, from therapy pets to sensory benefits.

judah schiller
Judah Schiller
June 24, 2024
Published On
June 24, 2024

Animal Interaction and Autism

Individuals with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) are often observed to have a unique affinity for animals, leading to the question: do autistic people get on better with animals? As it turns out, research confirms a positive impact of animal interaction on individuals with ASD.

Impact of Animals on ASD Individuals

Animals play various roles in the lives of individuals with ASD, providing social support as companions, therapy animals, and service animals. This interaction with animals can improve social functioning, acting as a unique catalyst for therapeutic success. It's particularly beneficial for individuals with ASD as they process social and sensory information differently from others.

For instance, a therapy dog can help a child self-soothe during a meltdown - a common occurrence in children with ASD. Similarly, interaction with farm animals in a structured context has shown to improve social and communication skills.

Therapeutic Benefits of Animal Interaction

Research suggests that Animal-Assisted Therapy (AAT) has become increasingly popular for children with ASD. It's observed that children with autism sometimes relate better to animals than to people, and therapists are able to make better therapeutic connections and strides when animals are around [2].

Dogs, being social and affectionate by nature, are the most commonly used animals in therapeutic settings for children with ASD. Time spent with a trained therapy dog can be greatly beneficial in helping an autistic child self-soothe, which can help mitigate meltdowns.

Equine-assisted therapy (EAT), which involves interaction with a horse, has also been found to be an effective form of therapy for children with ASD. Such interaction helps improve low moods and builds self-confidence [2].

Therapy with farm animals is another highly effective approach, particularly for children with ASD. Therapist-led interaction with these animals in a safe, structured context has proven beneficial for improving social and communication skills [2].

In summary, the benefits of animal interaction for individuals with autism are multifold and manifest in various forms of therapy. To further explore the topic, refer to our article on autism animal-assisted therapy.

Animal-Assisted Therapy (AAT)

Animal-Assisted Therapy (AAT) is a growing field that utilizes the unique benefits of human-animal interaction as a therapeutic tool. For those wondering "do autistic people get on better with animals?", the answer is often yes, and this interaction can be utilized in constructive ways.

AAT for Children with ASD

AAT can be particularly effective for children with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). Interacting with animals can provide a comforting presence for children, reducing stress and anxiety. Moreover, it can also help improve social skills, as the interaction with animals requires a level of non-verbal communication. For more information on this topic, please visit our page on autism animal-assisted therapy.

Benefits of AAT with Dogs

Dogs, in particular, are frequently used in therapeutic settings for children with ASD. Due to their social and affectionate nature, children can benefit from spending time with a trained therapy dog. Interactions with dogs can help children with ASD to self-soothe and improve their communication skills, as noted by NCBI. This is particularly valuable for those children who may struggle with social interactions with humans. You can learn more about how autistic kids interact with animals on our how do autistic kids treat animals? page.

Equine-Assisted Therapy (EAT)

Equine-Assisted Therapy (EAT) is another form of AAT that is gaining recognition for its effectiveness in treating children with ASD. This therapy involves interaction with horses, which can help improve low moods, develop motor skills, and instill a sense of achievement in children by steering the horse, as reported by NCBI.

Overall, the use of AAT in treating children with ASD offers a unique and effective method of therapy. By interacting with animals, children can develop a range of skills and experiences that can help them navigate their daily lives. Whether it's forming a bond with a therapy dog or learning to guide a horse, these interactions can provide invaluable benefits for children with ASD.

Animal-Assisted Interventions (AAI)

Animal-Assisted Interventions (AAI) have emerged as a promising approach to enhance social interactions and improve various other areas for individuals with autism spectrum disorder (ASD).

Social Interaction Improvement

One of the primary benefits of AAI for individuals with ASD is the enhancement of social interactions. The introduction of a therapy animal, such as a dog, can lead to a significant increase in both verbal and nonverbal communication, even in seriously withdrawn children with ASD. Furthermore, interaction with a therapy dog during social skills interventions can decrease feelings of isolation and depressive symptoms, while encouraging socialization.

AAI Programs Overview

AAI programs for individuals with ASD typically involve one animal per participant and feature approximately 10 hours of contact time over the course of 8 to 12 weeks. The most commonly reported outcome across 22 studies is increased social interaction, highlighting the potential of AAI in promoting social skills among individuals with ASD [4].

In addition to dogs, other animals such as horses have been incorporated into AAI programs. For instance, equine-assisted therapy has been found to reduce hyperactivity and irritability in children with ASD, while also enhancing social and communication skills.

Outcomes of AAI for Autism

A review of 28 studies on AAI for autism revealed that the most frequently assessed outcome was social interaction, evaluated in 79% of the studies. All of these studies reported positive effects of AAI on social interaction. Other outcomes assessed included language and communication, problem behaviors, positive emotions, motor skills, restricted and repetitive behaviors, autism diagnostic evaluation, and stress [4].

These findings suggest that AAI can have a positive impact on various areas of development and well-being for individuals with ASD. Besides increased social interaction, potential benefits of AAI include stress reduction, language/communication improvements, and enhancement of motor skills [5].

As our understanding of ASD and the potential benefits of AAI continues to grow, it's crucial for parents, caregivers, and professionals to stay informed about the latest research and developments. For more information on the relationship between animals and autism, you can explore our articles on autism animal-assisted therapy and how do autistic kids treat animals?.

Pet Ownership and Autism

The question, "Do autistic people get on better with animals?" has been a topic of interest for many researchers and families affected by Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). In this section, we'll delve into the relationship between pet ownership and autism, exploring attachment to pets, the benefits of pet ownership, and how pets can substitute for human interaction.

Attachment to Pets

According to research, autistic adults are equally attached to their pets as neurotypicals. This means that, like their neurotypical peers, individuals with ASD form strong emotional bonds with their pets. However, it's important to note that autistic adults are less likely to own pets, even though pet ownership corresponds with better mental health outcomes. This suggests that owning a pet can have positive mental health implications for individuals with autism.

Benefits of Pet Ownership

Pet ownership can significantly enhance the quality of life for all individuals, including those with autism. Among autistic adults who own pets, their attachment to their pets positively correlated with several mental health variables, including social anxiety, loneliness, and perceived social support. Thus, owning a pet can provide specific social benefits that may combat feelings of loneliness and fulfill social needs traditionally attained through human interactions. For more insights on how animals can assist individuals with autism, see our article on autism animal-assisted therapy.

Pet Substitution for Human Interaction

Interestingly, autistic adults were found to be more likely to substitute their pets for people, meaning that their pets were serving the purpose of human contact [6]. This behavior is motivated by social avoidance, a well-documented facet of autism. The companionship provided by pets can act as a compensatory mechanism to fulfill social needs in light of social avoidance. Thus, pets can play a significant role in providing comfort and companionship for people with autism.

In summary, pet ownership can play a significant role in the lives of individuals with autism. Beyond providing companionship, pets can also serve as a source of comfort and social support, which can help improve mental health outcomes. However, it's important to consider the individual needs and preferences of each autistic person when considering pet ownership. For more information on the relationship between animals and autism, check out our articles on how do autistic kids treat animals? and can animals have autism?.

Animal Models and ASD

In the quest to understand autism spectrum disorders (ASD), researchers have turned to the animal kingdom for insights. Using animal models, scientists can explore the similarities and differences between human and animal cognition, potentially shedding light on the unique ways that autistic individuals perceive and interact with the world.

Animal Models in ASD Research

While animals cannot be diagnosed with autism as the disorder is specific to humans, studying animal responses to sensory stimuli and emotional responses and behaviors can provide valuable insights into the underlying mechanisms of ASD. For instance, some animal species exhibit extraordinary skills in specific domains, resembling characteristics of Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). Animals like bats or dolphins that use echolocation, and food-storing birds like Clark's nutcrackers, demonstrate remarkable cognitive abilities within their specialized domains. While these skills in animals are often limited to specific areas, autistic savants may have impairments in other cognitive domains [5].

Insights from Animal Models

The use of animal models in ASD research offers a unique perspective that can potentially inform the development of interventions and treatments for individuals with ASD. By observing the behavior of animals that exhibit autism-like traits, researchers can gain a deeper understanding of how sensory sensitivities, cognitive differences, and social challenges may manifest in autistic individuals.

In a broader sense, these animal models can contribute to the overall understanding of autism spectrum disorders and the diverse ways that autistic individuals perceive and interact with the world. For more information about the potential for animals to have autism-like traits, visit our article on can animals have autism?.

Temple Grandin's Theory

Temple Grandin, an animal behavior expert and autism advocate, proposed a theory suggesting similarities in cognition between autistic individuals and animals. Grandin emphasized that animals, like autistic humans, sense and respond to stimuli that non-autistic humans often overlook. Her theory suggests that animals think in a way similar to autistic humans, focusing on details rather than the overall whole [5].

Grandin's theory offers a unique perspective on the question of 'do autistic people get on better with animals?', suggesting that the similar cognitive styles of animals and autistic individuals may facilitate a deeper understanding and connection. This perspective has been instrumental in promoting animal-assisted therapies for autism, as it underscores the potential benefits of animal interaction for autistic individuals. For more insights into how autistic children interact with animals, check out our article on how do autistic kids treat animals?.

Through the use of animal models in ASD research, the insights gleaned from these studies, and theories like Temple Grandin's, we move closer to understanding the unique ways in which autistic individuals perceive and interact with the world. By continuing to explore these connections, we can hope to uncover additional strategies and therapies to support autistic individuals in their daily lives.

Sensory Specificities and Animal Interaction

The relationship between sensory specificities in people with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and their interactions with animals is a complex and fascinating area of study. This section will delve into sensory sensitivities in ASD, interactions with anthropomorphic stimuli, and visual attention to animals vs. humans.

Sensory Sensitivities in ASD

Individuals with ASD often exhibit sensory specificities, including hyper- or hypo-reactivity to sensory stimuli. For instance, some individuals with ASD may display visual hypo-sensoriality, such as being attracted visually by lights. Conversely, others may exhibit hyper-sensoriality, like focusing on tiny pieces of dust. These sensory specificities can profoundly impact how individuals with ASD interact with their environment, including their relationships with animals.

Interactions with Anthropomorphic Stimuli

Research suggests that individuals with ASD may have better interactions with anthropomorphic stimuli, such as robots, dolls, cartoons, or avatars, compared to realistic stimuli. This implies that people with ASD may be particularly attracted to anthropomorphic agents, which could potentially include animals or animal-like characters. This propensity towards anthropomorphic stimuli could be a contributing factor to why many people ask, "do autistic people get on better with animals?"

Visual Attention to Animals vs. Humans

A series of studies have revealed that children with ASD showed a preference for animal faces over human faces in visual attention tasks, spending more time looking at animal faces. Moreover, these children looked more at the eyes of animal faces than at the mouths or ears, indicating a specific visual exploration pattern for animal stimuli.

These studies suggest a consistent preference for animal faces over human faces across different species of animals among children and adolescents with ASD. This tendency may play a significant role in the success of animal-assisted therapy for individuals with ASD.

Understanding these sensory specificities and preferences can help us better tailor therapeutic interventions and accommodations for individuals with ASD. Whether it's through the use of anthropomorphic stimuli or real animals, harnessing the power of these preferences can potentially improve the quality of life for people with ASD. To learn more about the relationship between animals and autism, consider reading our articles on how autistic kids treat animals and what animals can have autism.