Asperger’s: The Love of Animals

People with Asperger’s syndrome often tend to bond more easily with animals than they do with people. Medical research has shown that pets can be highly beneficial for children with Asperger’s, as an animal gives affection unconditionally, is non-judgmental and provides emotional and physical therapy.

Austrian paediatrician and medical professor Hans Asperger wrote the first definition of Asperger’s syndrome in 1944. He noted symptoms such as a limited ability to form friendships, a lack of empathy with other people and general problems with social interaction and communication.

Hugging a dog

Children with Asperger’s have little interest in situations that most children enjoy, such as birthday parties, not wishing to interact with other youngsters. They are likely to be unusually intolerant of people entering their personal space and will often live a solitary childhood. However, children with Asperger’s can bond easily with a pet.

Animal-assisted therapy is recognised for helping children with Asperger’s to enjoy a better quality of life – they can from close relationships with a special pet, learning to trust and respect the animal, thus boosting their self-confidence and feelings of commitment and responsibility.

Bonding with an animal can also teach problem-solving and decision-making skills and improve language and social skills.

 

Research

The concept of therapy animals is nothing new – in the late 19th century, Florence Nightingale realised that small pets could help to reduce anxiety in adults and children who were residing in psychiatric institutions. She noted how animals played a vital role, helping patients to recover.

Her early research was a turning point for animal therapy, as it helped it to become recognised as a trusted treatment for emotional and anxiety conditions.

Sigmund Freud took the therapy further in the 1930s, as he used his dog during psychotherapy sessions. He found the animal had a positive impact on both himself and his patients.

Three decades later, psychiatrist Boris Levinson brought his dog to a therapy session for an emotionally-disturbed boy, who had ceased to communicate verbally with people. The dog’s impact was massive and the boy began to communicate again during the therapy sessions.

An analysis of animal-assisted therapy for children with Asperger’s in 2007 concluded that it had improved their medical problems and also their behavioural and emotional issues. Attention skills also improved, as they found it easier to focus on a given task.

Having a pet also reduced anxiety and feelings of loneliness, boosted their self-esteem, improved their recreational skills and enabled better verbal interactions between members of the animal therapy group.

 

Different types of animal

The type of animal doesn’t necessarily have to be a dog, cat, rabbit, or other small mammal which typically makes a childhood pet. Therapy with horses includes horseback-riding, which also strengthens muscles, while swimming with dolphins improves physical abilities and boosts confidence.

In Thailand, elephants have been used as therapy animals for children who are on the autism spectrum. Sessions are held at the elephant therapy centre in Lampang, where young people can feed the elephants, play games with them and create elephant-themed art. Researchers say elephants are extremely intelligent animals, making them the ideal companions to interact with human beings.

Even lizards and other reptiles are used for pet therapy sessions. They tend to be overlooked when patients pick out their therapy animal, but their long life span, differing levels of care, fascinating behaviour and beautiful colouring can make reptiles excellent companions.

Feeding Elephants

 

Unconditional love

Research published in 2000 by child psychologists in New Mexico confirmed that pets promote confidence and self-esteem and motivate children with Asperger’s to interact. The study researched dog ownership among 10 to 12-year-old children with Asperger’s. There was a marked difference in self-esteem and empathy between the children who owned a dog and those who had no pets.

Children are constantly evaluated all their life, rated by their behaviour, athletic performance or grades: animals have no such expectations. They give children unconditional love and acceptance.

Children are curious about how their pets feel and the animals provide them with an avenue to explore their curiosity. This can lead to greater engagement with the world around them and greater empathy with people. When supervised by a responsible adult, a child can learn how to take care of their animal – another living being. This improves their nurturing skills, as they enjoy keeping their animal happy and healthy.

Having a pet to confide in stops the children from feeling lonely, which can be a damaging and traumatic emotion. Children cope better when they have an animal companion to make them feel a part of something.

Mums, dads and carers should make sure their child wants a pet before getting one. They should decide together what type of pet will be best. Parents shouldn’t assume their child will automatically take care of the pet. Ultimately, the responsibility falls on the parent to make sure any pet is kept healthy.

People who have pets know they can be a source of happiness and comfort, so it’s no surprise that animals also have healing and therapeutic benefits, helping to bring children with Asperger’s out of isolation.

Children with Asperger’s may also find it difficult to sleep at night, resulting in daytime tiredness, learning problems and behavioural issues. This can impact on other family members’ sleep too. Adapting the environment to make the sleeping area as comfortable as possible can help. Providing a soft yet safe environment for sleeping, playing and relaxation, a popular option is Kinderkey’s Bearhugzzz SpaceSaver bed.

Please contact us for further details of our safe sleeping solutions.

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