By: Kerry Magro, best-selling author, speaker, and disability advocate
In honor of Elmwood Park Zoo (officially becoming the first zoo in the world to become a Certified Autism Center) and Santa Barbara Zoo (first zoo on the West Coast to become a CAC), I wanted to discuss a topic that often doesn’t get mentioned: the benefits of interactions with animals for individuals with autism.
Growing up, I was surrounded by animals. Our home had 8 cats. I have several positive memories of the kitties when dealing with early development challenges due to my autism diagnosis. Many kids I knew also had a cat or dog and would say the same thing.
Now, I’m not saying animals are for everyone. Sensitivities must be considered for each individual with autism when coming to a decision on whether to get a pet. With that being said, I’ve seen many kids on the spectrum have less stress and a strong connection with different types of animals. Over the years, more and more parents get their kids service animals as a way to help them with their development.
Other families have used equine therapy to help their loved ones with autism. Many are helped with sensory and motor challenges by riding a horse. What is great about horses, that regardless of where you are on the spectrum, a person can have a great interaction with an animal as well as learning a hobby one can enjoy through life (riding).
Many experts in the field of autism spectrum disorders have noted the benefits of animals, such as leading autism advocate Temple Grandin. Grandin, a renowned public speaker who also happens to be on the spectrum, has been quoted sharing about her love of animals. If the right animal can be found, it could be a resource for autistic families for years. Grandin’s love of cattle has made her a pioneer for animal welfare reform for over 30 years.
I am a big advocate for zoos, aquariums and other public places that provide venues for the autism community to interact with animals in a safe and non-threatening way. At the end of the day, we need to keep our kids engaged with the world and animals are a method for accomplishing that.