14 Ways a Pet Can Help a Child with Special Needs

Animals can be wonderful companions for disabled children and adults, but they can do so much more too, helping with physical and emotional development.

At Scope, we have started collecting tips from parents and carers about the benefits animals can offer. We’ve shared some of these below, but we’d love to hear your stories and suggestions too, so please add them to the comment box below.

1. Not just a family pet

Freya has Aspergers and ever since she was little she has liked cats. Like an autism service dog, our cat is not just a family pet, but an important learning tool, sensory guide and companion. We’ve watched Freya grow and develop by gaining confidence with a cat at her side.

2. Fishy entertainment

Fish tanks can be really calming for people with sensory processing disorders. My daughter has a five gallon tank in her bedroom, that not only calms her down, but helps her sleep better at night by providing white noise..

3. Show and tell

Our rabbit has been great for show and tell at school, giving my son, who doesn’t make friends easily, a chance to talk to other children and enjoy a bit of social interaction and communication.

4. All Cats Have Asperger Syndrome

We found Kathy Hoopmann’s book All Cats Have Asperger Syndrome a lighthearted and non-threatening way of explaining things simply. Hoopmann has done a series of books – I know there’s also All Dogs have ADHD.

5. A furry friend

My son has profound learning disabilities and is unable to make friends, but he does have a friendship with our dog. My son can not play by himself but he will sit and play with our dog for ages. She is such great entertainment for him. Our dog is so patient with him and makes a huge difference to his life.

6. Cat stickers

If you want my child to be interested in something, slap a cat sticker on it, or make the subject about cats; this will overcome her distrust of the unfamiliar, and when she’s comfortable, then she’ll actually do an activity. We have cat stickers on school books, pens, eating utensils, used as rewards, and on her orthotic leg braces.

7. Saddle therapy

Horse riding has great therapeutic benefits, improving muscle tone, balance, posture, coordination and motor development. It also makes a great break from a wheelchair.

8. Cats as education

There’s no end to cats on the internet or applications available that feature cats. It’s instant entertainment, but also instant education. Quaky Cat developed from the Christchurch earthquakes, helped our child cope with the Seddon earthquake that we felt here in Wellington last year.

9. More freedom

Since my son has had his assistance dog, he’s had so much more freedom and independence from us. The dog wears a jacket informing people about his disability, and it’s been a great ice-breaker too, as people stop and chat to him now.

10. Purrfect communication

Something that’s hard for Freya is to read the facial expressions of others. So for her, communication with cats is relaxing – they don’t emote like humans. Cats’ non-verbal modes of communication are easier for Freya to relate to, such as purring, hissing and looking away to show you’re not a threat.

11. Dealing with loss

Our cat Ronnie taught Jen (who can become frustrated and anxious if a regular routine is broken) an important lesson when he passed away suddenly last year. The hard lesson to learn was that change is unpredictable and our loved ones will eventually pass away. Ronnie continues to be a mechanism for coping with loss and grief.

12. Easing social interaction

Social interaction with our daughter can be difficult. She doesn’t look at your face and responds to questions with rote sentences, which can be disconcerting. But if you’ve got a cat, she wants to hear all about it. In our experience, people are only too happy to talk about their pets and this makes for easier interaction between them and Freya.

13. Dog keeps me calm

I have bipolar and my dog really helps get me through the day. She keeps me calm, gets me out of the house every day for walks and gives me cuddles when I’m upset. Since getting a dog I’ve had no more nights in hospital.

14. Building self confidence

I take my dog once a month to visit a young blind teenager with learning disabilities. She is quite frightened of dogs, and every time we visit, it takes her about an hour to pat him, but then she loves it. She really enjoys the interaction and sensory play. The sense of achievement she obviously feels when she finally pats him is wonderful.

Emma Sterland

Written on 2014/05/21 by:

Emma Sterland

Emma Sterland helps run the online community at Scope, a national UK-based disability charity, offering support for disabled people and their families. All the tips used in this post were contributed by members of the online community, and can be seen in the tips section of the community .