Autism and benefits of owning a pet

This Autism Awareness and Acceptance Month, we spoke to two team members at our Berkshire centre, who have taken the time to share their journey with pets and autism.

Molly with her dog Redge

Molly, our fundraising officer, has been with the centre since 2022.

“I was late diagnosed in 2021, when I was 22 years old with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). This was after a lengthy five-year wait, which was exaggerated by Covid. Being autistic and having a dog has had many benefits for me. It has taught me a lot about self-management and responsibility, as well as developing my understanding of animals and their behaviour.”

Laura is one of our animal care assistants and has a postgraduate degree in Clinical Animal Behaviour.   

“I discovered I had AuDHD in 2023 and was diagnosed shortly after. It’s helped me understand why I have a natural affinity working with animals but must work harder when communicating with neurotypical people (reading tone and facial expressions can be difficult!). I have two dogs and two gerbils, all of which were rescued from NAWT, and I wouldn’t be without them. As well as providing me with companionship, they have benefitted me as an AuDHDer by adding routine and structure to my day-to-day life.”

Every neurodivergent person is different and has different experiences. Here are just some of the other benefits that owning pets may bring to the lives of neurodivergent individuals:

      1. Creates routine and structure to your days.

        For many autistic individuals, the world can seem unpredictable and chaotic. Having routine and structure can help to provide stability in a world full of change.  Owning a pet helps to install a structure to your day with their feeding schedules, exercise, and play needs. Many animals may also have grooming needs which require adding a routine of care, such as weekly baths, brushing, and nail trims.

        In addition, whilst animals do provide structure, they can also introduce small but manageable schedule changes. Having to learn to adjust to a pet’s needs can help with teaching flexibility and problem-solving.

        2. Gets you outside the house.

            Dogs, in particular, require regular walks and playtime. This not only adds to the structure of the day but has many physical and mental health benefits, including reducing stress and anxiety. Walking helps to increase blood flow to the brain and body. It is also proven to improve cognitive function such as enhancing your problem-solving skills and memory. Without a pet, there can be many days where you might not feel like leaving the house, but owning a dog can encourage you to remain active and seek regular physical activity. 

            3. Helps with emotional regulation.

              Anyone can have trouble with managing their emotions but for people with autism, you are more likely to struggle with it. This can be due to having trouble recognising your own emotions, or the emotions of others surrounding you. Researchers and psychologists refer to this as “emotional dysregulation.”

              Owning a pet can help with regulating your emotions. This can be through repetitive actions such as stroking an animal, if they enjoy this, or just by having them around to create a calming presence.

              4. Can feel more confident with an animal companion in public settings.

                Public settings can be very overwhelming for a multitude of reasons to people with autism. In crowded settings especially, it can be easy to feel sensory overload. Sensory overload is when your five senses take in more information than your brain can process. One way to describe sensory overload is it can be a bit like walking into a room with over 30 different TV’s, all playing different films at top volume. There are so many different things happening at once and you can’t process any of it, so your body goes into flight, fight or freeze mode.

                Having an animal can help with socialising in public settings, and help neurodivergent people feel more confident when out and about when the world can be overwhelming.

                5. Communication with animals is non-verbal. It can be easier to read an animal companion and you don’t have to mask around them.

                  Masking is a common strategy among many autistic individuals, involving mimicking the behaviours of neurotypical people to fit into their environment. It may include suppressing behaviours like stimming in public or creating intricate social scripts to navigate social interactions.

                  Around animals, there are no social expectations, so it is easier for some autistic individuals to ‘unmask’ and feel more comfortable being themselves.

                  Whilst animals don’t communicate through words, they are masters of non-verbal communication. The way a dog wags its tail alone can convey different states of emotion. People with autism can find these forms of interaction more intuitive than communication (both verbal/non-verbal) with other individuals.