As I write in my book, Asperger's in Pink, I often wonder if having a border collie would have been a wonderful addition to our family when our daughter was quite young. She was a wanderer and having this special type of dog as part of our family may have provided a helping hand as well as an extra pair of eyes and ears for us. Many kids on the Autism Spectrum do, indeed, benefit from having therapy dogs in the home. But even if specialized therapy pets aren't something you feel appropriate for your situation, I'd like to share with you why having a pet, in general, can be a positive thing for your super special kid — and even the entire family! I've also included a few things to consider when adding a pet to your home.
After we moved, we promised to get our daughter a dog. The rules we set were pretty strict as we have a few severe allergies in the house, plus he needed to work within our life situation. After much research, we decided on a Yorkie. These little guys can be pretty high maintenance, so additional rules were set before we brought him home. He's been a pure joy, and although the one rule, "You will take him out whenever he needs to go," totally dissolved once high school started and our daughter turned in for the night by 9 p.m., we have no regrets and our life is richer because of him.
Our little ball of fluff has provided friendship, unconditional love (so very key!) and a whole new dimension to our family. As hard as it is seeing your daughter or son have a bad day, there is nothing like seeing her pet cuddle up close to her, licking the tears from her face. For kids who struggle socially, a lovable pet can help fill that void and offer unmatched companionship. They will love her for who she is, not who the world thinks she should be, and that is priceless.
Here are a few things to keep in mind when considering a pet if you have an Autism Spectrum Child (or other special needs) in the house:
- Are there any allergies in the house? I can't tell you how often I've met people who get a cat, bird, etc., knowing one family member is allergic, thinking that living on antihistamine indefinitely is a good idea. It isn't. Respect the allergy and simply choose another pet.
- How hard will it be to take care of? If it's a cat, are you up to dealing with a litter box? "Wet Dog" is more than a deodorant in Monsters, Inc. Trust me. If your child has a super smeller, keep this in mind as all pets bring some sort of odor to the home. Will he be up to walking the dog? Can he? Does it matter? And fish… cleaning the tank can be a challenge. And then there are iguanas… Our friends had one and educated us on petting the iguana and potentially contracting salmonella. (We never did pet it…)
- Does your child understand the difference between human food and pet food? If kibble is sitting in a bowl all day, do they have the capacity to understand it belongs to the pet? Also, a litter box is for cats — not humans. Seriously, for some folks, these things do need to be spelled out. And that's ok.
- Can you afford to care for it? Some animals are easier to add to the monthly budget than others, but routine vet bills, flea and heart meds can add up. If your pet needs professional grooming, that adds to the tab. Want a pony? It will, most likely, need to be boarded. As many families with Spectrum kids are already stressed financially due to therapy copays and more, this is something you do need to sit down and figure out before you commit to a pet. There will be nothing worse than bringing a pet home only to determine later that its upkeep put you over the edge.
- How rough is your child? Many super special kids have trouble with their "place in space." For some kids, a sturdier pet (sounds odd, I know!) is a better bet. Giving a tiny kitten a smooshy hug is a sure sign of love — but not very safe for Fluffy. Kids need to understand when to let go of a pet (when it doesn't want to be held), as well as how to safely put it down. I've seen a teenager let go of a small dog, thinking it would plop safely to the ground like a cat. (Thankfully, the dog was ok.) What happens when your child is angry or has an outburst? Will he be able to control himself around the pet?
- What is your lifestyle like? If no one is home for the bulk of the day, certain breeds of dogs may not be the best fit as some need companionship more than others. Also, if you have an indoor dog, someone will need to walk him as most dogs can't (or shouldn't) go 10 hours or so without a potty break. Our little Yorkie is a prime example. As I work from home most of the time, this wasn't an issue for us. Other pets, such as cats, fish, birds, hamsters, etc., are more flexible. However, all pets need sitting (or boarding) if you tend to go away frequently.
- Are you willing to allow your super special child to help take care of the pet? Teaching a super special child how to feed and care for a pet is a wonderful step toward independence. There are life skills he can acquire through the simple day-to-day care of a loving pet! Remember, if his responsibility is to change the water and feed it every day, he may need a checklist he can refer to to make sure he completes each step. (Empty bowls. Wash bowls. Dry bowls. Fill bowls with "x" amount of food, etc.)
- Safety is always first. If your pet is a "runner," will your child understand she can't open the front door without first making sure Fido is secured? Can he understand the importance of keeping hold of the leash during walks, as well as making sure the dog does not wander into the street or towards others? Does she know not to pull on the cat's tail or anything else that could cause a pet to bite or scratch out of self-defense? Does he know he can't grab Goldie out of the fish tank and pet it? Choose to observe your child and teach her safety around and with pets.
Adding a pet to your home is a huge responsibility, but it can be incredibly worthwhile! Our little dog has been such a wonderful addition to our family! I'd love to hear your story below, as well as answer any questions you may have!
Wishing you all the best, always,
Julie Clark is the published author of Asperger's in Pink, which you can buy here, and speaks professionally about Autism. She is also the creative force behind Julie Clark Art. Julie is happily married and has a beautiful daughter. She is currently working on her second novel.