You might not think of cats as being appropriate “therapy” animals, due to their infamous aloofness. Cat lovers know, however, that, while felines might seem to be indifferent to others at first glance, a true bond can form between cats and their owners or loved ones. Here we will discuss how cats can benefit children who are on the autism spectrum.
A recent study conducted by researchers from the University of California-Davis found that cats do, indeed, provide great benefits for children with autism. Children with autism tend to routinely display antisocial behaviors, but have been known to display affectionate behaviors towards cats. They researchers studied 64 autistic children, each of whom had been matched with an adult cat. Parents of children with autism who participated in this study noted that the cat tended to calm the child, acting as a soothing guardian or protector of the child. The cats acted affectionately towards the children with autism as well. It must be noted, however, that cats who were placed with children with more severe forms of autism did not display as many affectionate behaviors toward the child. Conclusions gleaned from this study were that, when choosing a cat for an autistic child, one should look for an especially affectionate cat who will be more compatible.
What Benefits do Cats Provide to Autistic Children?
Parents of autistic children see a definite benefit of having a cat as a therapy animal for their child rather than a dog. Cats require less “maintenance” than a dog and therefore often fit the lifestyle of an autistic child better than a dog. For example, dogs would need to be taken outside to use the bathroom and for exercise, while cats can fulfill these needs indoors.
Parents have also noted that cats who are placed with autistic children seem to have an innate sense of when the child is upset. Cats will often sit beside or in the lap of an upset child with autism, perhaps in an attempt to calm the child. It seems that many cats understand the needs and moods of an autistic child and know exactly how to respond.
Other parents say that the only time they ever hear their autistic child speak is when he is interacting with the cat. Even non-verbal autistic children who speak with sign language tend to sign more often when interacting with their cat.
So, to sum it up, the benefits of an autistic child having a cat include (but of course, are not limited to):
- Teaching the child empathy – Many children on the autism spectrum have trouble understanding others’ social and emotional cues. Cats can help to teach empathy to these children.
- Providing a sense of calm – Petting a cat is so relaxing, and autistic children are often full of stress. Having a cat to play with or sit on their lap can greatly reduce stress in an autistic child.
- Providing socialization – The cat can help teach the child how to socialize and acclimate to various social environments. A cat provides a universal common ground for conversations, so many autistic children will talk to others more freely when their cat is with them (as the cat provides a conversation starter).
- Unconditional love – Autistic children, unfortunately, often face rejection from the outside world. Cats provide unconditional love, no matter what the child does. This is truly groundbreaking for an autistic child.
- Improving mood – Just being around a cat can help to boost an autistic child’s mood and reduce their number of outbursts.
- Providing a sense of connection – Cats and their owners have a special connection that is unique. For many autistic children, this might be the first connection with another being of any type that they can form. Cat behavior is much easier for an autistic child to understand than human behavior. They don’t use confusing social cues as humans have been known to do.
What Types of Cats Are Best Suited for Autistic Children?
When choosing a cat for an autistic child, parents should look for certain traits, according to the researchers. It is best to choose breeds who are known to be very affectionate. According to The International Cat Association, these breeds include (but again, are not limited to):
- Scottish Fold or Scottish Straight – These cats are known to be mellow and want to be near you every second – perfect for an autistic child.
- Tonkinese – These are highly social, intelligent cats, who crave great affection from those in the family.
- Ragdoll – These are laid back, quiet, loving cats who enjoy being a part of the household, loving both the children and the adults.
- Kurillian Bobtail – This Russian breed is known to be gentle and loving, and a cat that really enjoys being pet.
- Oriental Shorthair (Siamese) – Siamese cats are outspoken, lively, and loving. They enjoy both playing and cuddling with their owner.
- Sphynx – The Sphynx has no hair and is therefore warm and soft, which can be particularly appealing to an autistic child who craves touch. They are known to be loving and loyal.
- Burmese/Bombay – These cats are lap cats who are known to love children and the elderly.
- Birman – This cat tends to mirror their owner’s mood, and can therefore be good for autistic kids. When the child wants to play, they will want to play; and when the child is quiet or needs calmed, this cat will be there to console the child.
Parents should also choose cats who show little to no fearfulness. In this way, they won’t have the tendency to run and hide during a child’s outburst, the way many cats would. For the same reasons, cats chosen for autistic children should also be playful and socially outgoing.