Animals and the autistic spectrum

A close friend and former work colleague of mine requested that I write this post and it is a topic that I find fascinating so I thought I’d try and explain why people with autism go one of either two ways with animals, in my experience-they either fear them or absolutely adore them and consider them as lifelong, loyal friends.

I myself am a cat person. I have been brought up around cats from the age of 8 and I went through a phase where I was obsessed with anything feline related. Cats are affectionate enough for me to feel loved and valued by them but they are not clingy. I don’t deal well with clingy animals-I like animals who come to you when they want or choose to but can be indifferent to you the rest of the time. There is the long running joke that cats are very much like people with Aspergers Syndrome and I definitely saw this in my female cat who unfortunately passed away late last month at the age of seventeen and a half. She came across as aloof and indifferent to all humans until the very end of her life with us (I do know that these are highly stereotypical autistic traits but I am using these as an example). She could not tolerate a lot of sensory experiences and would lash out at anyone who tried to inflict these upon her by clipping her claws or giving her a worming tablet, for example. Cats are a lot easier for me to cope with than dogs. I am grateful for all of my feline companions over the years. I kept fish as well but that didn’t work out as I kept accidentally over feeding them and they all died within a short time of me getting them.

When it comes to dogs, I fear them. I find them highly unpredictable and I can never be sure of how they will react to me. I feel intimidated when they sniff at me or try to jump up at me. Logically I know that they are just trying to be affectionate and that this is their way of greeting me but I can’t seem to move past the fear. It doesn’t help that barking is one sound I really dislike. I remember, last summer, I was walking around our local lagoon when I came across a dog who was off his lead. He ran up at me, barking, and I bolted past him, trying to find any escape route. His owners thought this was hilarious and one of them even made the joke, “You’re not scared of babies too, are you?” as he was pushing a pram. I have found that a lot of dog owners I have experienced can’t understand why people are scared of dogs. Telling me that your dog is friendly doesn’t work either-it’s not that I fear that he or she is angry-it’s just the unpredictability of their behaviour that scares me. I don’t deal well with energetic animals and dogs are naturally a lot more energetic than cats who, after all, sleep on average 20 hours a day!

I do, however, realise that, for a lot of people on the autistic spectrum, dogs are fantastic friends. There are even Autism Service dogs in both the United States and the United Kingdom who are specifically trained to calm children with autism who are anxious or distressed (http://www.dogsforthedisabled.org/what-we-do/how-to-apply-for-an-assistance-dog/autism-services-for-children/autism-assistant-dog-service/) Dogs are naturally more friendly than cats and, for a lot of people with autism, this works better. A dog will always be there for support when someone is having a bad day whereas a cat may just wander off, more interested in where its next meal is coming from than their owner’s distress!

I know that there are more types of animal than just cats and dogs but these are the two animals that I have chosen to discuss in this post. Other animals can display the same characteristics that make them easier for someone with autism to get along with.

Animals do not judge and they love unconditionally. For a child who is often ostracised or bullied at school for not fitting in, animals can be saviours. Animals don’t care what you look like, how you speak or how you behave-they like you for being you. You will never fall short of an animal’s expectations because, as long as they are well cared for, they will love you loyally until the end of their lives. There are a lot of people with autism who respond to animals better than they do to humans. Indeed, I would class myself as one of them. It is far less hassle to communicate with an animal-they don’t take offence if your interpretation of their non verbal communication is wrong. You don’t have to constantly be analysing the conversation and thinking of what to say next because you can sit in silence with them for hours at a time if you desire and they won’t judge you for it. I genuinely believe that human beings could do with learning from animals at times.

I leave you with one thought-what would the world be like if it consisted of solely animals? I, for one, think it would be a far better place.

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One Response to Animals and the autistic spectrum

  1. I love both cats and dogs, but find it easier to care for cats. had a cat that followed me everywhere and never left my lap, and cried when I went to work, very clingy. I love hyper cats and dogs because I used to be very hyper in my youth, which I think is also common in autism.

    Animals don’t expect you to make small talk and don’t pretend to like you when they don’t. They don’t pretend to be better creatures than they really are. It’s also a sensory thing. I love dogs’ silky paws on my shoulders, and I love a cat’s soft, moist nose stuck in my ribs. Love their fluffy, warm bodies on my lap.

    Dogs are noisy, and I fear noise. I pet every dog I see and rub my noise against their muzzle. I talk baby talk to them and pet feral cats, although I’ve been scratched and bitten so many times that I’ve lost count, but it doesn’t stop me. I’m addicted to animals. Nature, animals, and music are what my world is made of, that and my family, the only people in the world I want to be around, can stand to be around.

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