You all probably know by now that I am a big fan of pets for kids… and especially a big fan of pets as therapy animals for children with autism and other special needs.
I have tremendous respect for programs that guide dogs (and other therapy animals) in intensive training. These programs can take up to two years to fully train a therapy dog. These dogs are incredible and have saved children’s lives during seizures and when wandering. These animals (and their trainers!) are heroes.
I fully believe that all animals are “therapeutic” – in that they help us (everyone!) feel calmer, more in control and happier. Studies show that just petting your cat or dog at the end of the day releases seratonin, makes you happier and slows your heartbeat. Animals are natural healers and are naturally therapeutic.
I am often asked by families if I think it would be beneficial for their child if they added a pet to their family. I (almost always!) says yes. The only time I say no is if the family is living in a very tiny apartment and I don’t think it would be fair for the animal to join the small space. In Paris, apartments can be seriously tiny. (30 or 40m2 for a family of 4 and a golden retriever is not enough space!) Otherwise, my answer is always YES because I believe so fully in the positive effects that animals have on the whole family.
I would argue that ALL types of animals can have a therapeutic effect on others, although I appreciate that certain animals are better suited to specific types of training to help children and adults with autism and various special needs.
Dogs as therapy animals for autistic children
I love dogs. I am a big fan of all kinds of dogs – big and small – but am particularly obsessed with yorkshire terriers. They are small, easy to travel with, adorable and very loving. They make wonderful autism therapy companions.
We have two therapy yorkies, Violette and Chou Chou, at my center, Le Chemin ABA. If you haven’t read about them yet, please read Meet Violette & Chou Chou : our therapy dogs for children with autism and other special needs. These little dogs are delightful, fluffy balls of love and the effects they have had on the kids at Le Chemin ABA are incredible. The kids absolutely ADORE them! Their faces light up as soon as they enter the room. Children with varying levels of communication skills and physical mobility absolutely glow when Violette and Chou Chou are present. It is really touching to see!
Violette and Chou Chou are always with us, traveling all around Europe. They love to travel! We were in Picardie (north of Paris, in the country, and a five minute drive from the coast) this past weekend.
Cats as furry therapy friends
One particularly moving story of a therapy cat is the story of Iris Grace and her darling cat, Thula. Iris Grace is a 6 year old girl with autism who shares a heartwarming friendship with Thula. Thula is a Main Coon cat and she is always with Iris Grace. She sits next to Iris Grace while she paints, plays with playdough and sleeps next to her. They also go for walks together!
(A giant thank you to Bored Panda for all of these AMAZING photos of Iris Grace & Thula.)
Therapeutic aquariums : the Healing effects of fish
Therapeutic aquariums are also a wonderful tool for autistic children. I wrote an article for the Autism Daily Newscast about our therapeutic aquarium at Le Chemin ABA. You can read it here.
Watching fish swim is relaxing and healing. Having your child participate in planting live plants in the aquairum, add fish to the water, feed the fish and clean the aquarium are all wonderful functional activities. For more functional activity ideas, check out my articles : Functional learning activities for children with autism.
Equine-assisted therapy : horses as therapy buddies
Read about one family’s experience with equine-assisted therapy – and how it helped their son come out of his shell, connect with a horse and increase his functional communication skills in my article The Difference Equine Assisted Therapy Made to Our Family — Soft Thistle Life.
How do therapy animals help children with special needs?
1. Autistic children build their functional activities skills set by caring for their animals, feeding them, brushing them, bathing them (for those you can bathe!), caring for them when they travel and looking out for their various needs. You can also involve your child in such activities as baking dog biscuits for his or her therapy dog or shopping for a new horse brush or dog bed.
2. Autistic children learn empathy through caring for an animal, paying attention to the animal’s particular needs and fulfilling those daily needs.
3. Autistic children learn the idea of responsibility by having pet-related activities to participate in every day to care for their pets.
4. Autistic children feel comforted and reassured by their therapy animal. This results in children feeling more relaxed, having fewer behavior problems and higher levels of concentration.
5. Autistic children build their communication skills thanks to their therapy animals. A child’s therapy pet can participate in a communication-building program by serving as the motivation to make requests and answer questions.
6. Therapy animals can keep children with special needs in the case of dogs, for example, that are specifically trained to spot and signal seizures or bring children who wander back to safety.
What do you think? Does your child have a therapy animal? Which animal is your favorite therapy animal? ♥
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