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Fact-checked by Vincenza De Falco, Autism & Learning Disabilities Specialist Coach.
There are many lessons that people can learn from interactions with and observations of animals. They can learn respect, compassion, empathy, and more. Children with Autism Spectrum Disorder/Condition (ASD/ASC) can benefit significantly by learning how to respect animals. This life lesson helps them to learn compassion, provides relief from loneliness and anxiety, improves connections and communications, and builds self-confidence.
There are different ways to teach autistic children about animals and how to respect them, and animals can be of great benefit to them. Purdue University explores the potential benefits of animal-assisted intervention for autistic children. However, it all starts with introducing autistic children to animals and teaching them how to respect them.
Start Early with Story Sharing and Books About Animals
It is never too early to introduce your autistic child to the concept that animals are living creatures. You might read books about an animal that gets hurt or feels sad. The idea is to present animals as living creatures with feelings and needs, just as people have feelings and needs. This approach will introduce the concept that it is essential to respect animals.
If you have an autistic child who is prone to outbursts and has hurt an animal in the past, you can share a book that helps to teach that hurting animals is never okay. Using stories and books will help introduce the idea that animals are living creatures, and it is important to respect them.
Set an Example
You should model behavior that is respectful of animals, and be sure to engage your autistic child. You should not say negative things about animals, and you can talk to your child to point out things that he or she should notice. You should never hurt animals or yell at them, but you can use examples to start to teach your child to respect them.
If you see a squirrel gathering food, share that with your child. Talk about what the squirrel might do with the food. Tell a story that shows that animals store food to share with their families. All of these conversations help to reinforce the idea that animals are living creatures, just like people.
Take Time to Watch Animals in Nature
One part of respect for animals is leaving them alone in nature. You can go outside and watch the rabbits or birds in your yard, or you can go to a park nearby. Point out their interactions and what they might be doing. Teach your autistic child that it is important not to frighten the animals. These are all valuable lessons that reinforce the need to respect animals.
Build a Birdhouse for Your Yard 🐦
Another way to teach autistic children to respect animals is to do something to help animals in your yard, such as building a birdhouse. This can be beneficial to children with autism because they will have an opportunity to be creative and do something tangible that provides shelter and food for the birds. You can let your child add food to the birdhouse and watch the birds as they come to visit.
Visit a Zoo 🐯
There are many different kinds of animals at the zoo. You can watch them interact with each other as they would in the wild, and there are some human-to-animal interactions that you can participate in. You can buy an annual pass and focus on one type of animal each time you go. Talk to your child to discuss and observe each animal’s characteristics.
You can also point out how the zoo animals are in their own habitat so that they have everything they need and feel safe. Your child can start to learn that sometimes animals are frightened, as well. There are so many ways to learn about feelings by observing animals because they operate on instincts and intuitions. Many zoos are developing programs to make the zoo experience positive for autistic children.
Get a Pet
Having a pet in the home is one of the most hands-on ways to teach your autistic child to respect animals. When you have a pet in your home, it needs to be fed and taken care of every day, and this teaches children responsibility, compassion, and respect. You can get any kind of pet, from a goldfish to a guinea pig to a dog, depending on how much responsibility your family has time for.
There is research that shows that having a pet can help children with autism. You can take this opportunity to teach your child how to respect your pet. Make sure that you talk to your child about how to care for the pet. Discuss the pet’s needs, and show the child how happy the pet is when it gets fed. As the child comes to understand that the pet has needs, you can assign responsibilities to your child.
For example, you might have your child be responsible for helping you with the feeding once a day. If you have a hamster or a guinea pig, the child can learn how to clean its cage. Your fish will need its water changed, and the dog or cat will need its water bowl filled. All of these tasks teach your child that animals have needs, just as people do.
You can also teach your child to respect animals through appropriate contact with the pet. For example, you will want to show the child not to awaken a pet suddenly or to be gentle when petting it. As your child develops a bond with the pet, it leads to several other benefits, as well.
Teach your child the physical consequences of being unkind to the pet, and make sure that your child understands that if you startle a sleeping dog, it might become frightened and bite or nip. It is important for your child to learn to make this association, and you can relate it to a time your child might have felt the same way.
As your autistic child has an opportunity to live with the pet and learn how to bond with it and take care of it, your child will start to learn to have empathy for the pet because the child will begin to understand how the pet might be feeling.
Teach Your Child Overall Animal Etiquette
When you are teaching your child how to respect animals, you will want to have many different experiences and interactions on this topic. It is important to show your child that wild animals need to be left alone because they can grow frightened.
It is also crucial for your child to understand not to approach strange dogs. Your child should always ask the owner before gently petting the dog. Your child can learn that some animals are afraid of strangers, so it is always best to ask before you approach them.
If your child feels scared around an animal, teach him or her to stand still and stay calm. Show your child that calm behavior will help to make an animal relax. It is always a good idea to have a healthy respect for animals. Your child may feel some of the feelings that animals feel, and he or she can learn to relate to the animal. This breeds respect.
Equine Therapy 🐴
Equine therapy is another beautiful way to teach autistic children to respect animals, and it comes with many other benefits. Autistic children have benefits in terms of social, communication, anxiety reduction, and a reduction of other symptoms of autism when they interact with horses both by riding them and spending time with them.
Many programs allow autistic children to brush horses and learn how to interact with them. Horses are big, and they are kind, and autistic children can gain confidence from these interactions.
Animal and Pet Therapies for Autism
Autism can be a challenging condition to live with, but different therapies can help treat the symptoms. Animal therapies include emotional, physical, and social support, and mammals tend to be the best type of therapeutic animals.
Service animals are usually dogs, and they can help autistic children avoid negative interactions and calm their emotions. They can also help them navigate a crowded space. They can be expensive, but there is funding available. When you have a service dog, your autistic child can learn to care for it just as he or she would any type of dog. This helps to build the bond, and the child can learn to respect the dog because they are helping each other.
Therapy animals can be any species, and they are used to help autistic children manage their emotions, build play skills, and build communication skills. They will also support positive interactions with other children who are not autistic.
Emotional support animals are often pets. They can help autistic children manage difficult transitions such as traveling, going to doctor’s appointments, or going to school. They must be certified to be allowed into these places, but they can help the autistic child.
These animal interactions really help an autistic child develop respect for the animal because they learn that the animal is helping them. They need to care for the animal, and this give-and-take leads to a relationship based on mutual respect and caring. This is a very beneficial way to teach an autistic child to respect animals.
How Can Service Dogs Help? 🐕🦺
Service dogs can be specially trained to work with and help people with autism. Typically, the family owns the dog, and these dogs are allowed in almost all public places. An organization such as 4 Paws for Ability has an Autism Assistance Dog Program specifically to help children with autism.
These dogs are trained to track the child if the child wanders off. They can also be tethered to the child in public. The child can hold the leash, and the parent will also hold the leash, but the child can feel more comfortable by having the dog there.
Another way these dogs help is by interrupting repetitive behaviors. The dog can be trained to respond to repetitive behaviors by placing its paw on the child or nudging him or her. The dog can also comfort the child during a meltdown. There are many ways these dogs can help.
Having a service dog can teach your autistic child how to learn to respect animals because of the give and take. The child will learn that the dog is caring, nurturing, and there to help, but the trade-off is that the dog needs to be given food and water, as well as regular brushing and love. This provides a unique opportunity for your autistic child to bond with the dog.
Final Words: Specific Lessons to Teach Respect for Animals 🐈
There are specific lessons you can teach your autistic child that are rooted in respect for animals. The important thing is to find ways to communicate the idea that animals are living creatures who need respect the same as humans do. Teach your child the following:
- Always ask before you pet a strange dog.
- Reach out with your palm facing up, allow the dog to sniff your hand, and do not pet its eyes, ears, mouth, or private parts.
- Be gentle. Do not pull the tail or ears.
- Never disturb an animal that is eating, sleeping, or taking care of its babies.
- Do not make sudden moves or loud noises.
- Do not disturb wild animals.
- Never tease an animal.
- Animals are living creatures that need food, water, and shelter.
- Pets rely on people to take care of them.
When you use interactions in nature, at the zoo, or even in your own yard to instill these rules, you are teaching your child to respect animals. Respect is regard for the feelings and qualities of others, and as your child learns all about animals, he or she will learn how to respect them. Animals are wonderful teaching tools for all children, including those with autism.
Vincenza De Falco is an Autism & Learning Disabilities (LD) specialist coach with extensive experience working with young people with various needs in different settings. Her passion for Autism & LD started as a volunteer at a multi-functional provision for Autism whilst studying for a BA in Theatre, Education, and Deaf Studies.
Throughout her career, Vincenza continues her professional development alongside working within numerous support and leadership roles in education and charities. Having gained Level 3 in Speech and Language Support, HLTA qualification, Level 3 Award in Education and Training and Level 3 CMI Coaching qualification, Vincenza has furthered her expertise within Autism & LD.
Entering the Third Sector as a Project Manager developing and delivering a specialist NEET program, she subsequently joined ThinkForward’s newest venture DFN MoveForward, supporting young people with Autism & LD to successfully transition from education into paid employment. Through 1:1 coaching, family support, and training employers to become disability confident, Vincenza builds bespoke programs for young people with the end goal of work readiness and employment. Through Vincenza’s passion for creating systemic change in Disability and employment, she forms part of the successful partnership running the DFN Project Search Supported Internship at Moorfields Eye Hospital.