Animals and autism


There are multiple ways to treat autism.

Therapies range from hyperbaric therapy to physical therapy to music therapy. Each of these can help improve the lives of autistic individuals, but in recent years another form of therapy has caught my attention. One that needs no form of verbal communication.

Animals have a sixth sense. Dogs and cats seem to know we are leaving for a weekend vacation before our bags are even packed. They know when we have hit rock bottom and need a little reassurance that somebody still loves us. Other animals just know when to comfort, protect and accept a human being.

The story of one type of therapy begins with Karen Shirk. Shirk needed a ventilator to breathe and the service dog agencies she applied to said she was too disabled to have a dog.  After years and years of trying, Karen finally received her own dog. She became inspired to start her own organization where applicants would not be judged on severity of their disability. This is where 4 Paws for Ability began.

images (1)Today 4 Paws for Ability has become the standard across the country in placing “highly skilled Autism Assistance Dogs” with autistic families. The non-profit organization not only helps autistic families, but families with children of all disabilities. No one is turned away as long as they have a physician’s approval.

Over the years, Brian has developed a special relationship with one dog in particular. My cousin and his wife have a dog named Ace. He is a Shiba Inu. That means Ace is full of energy. Whenever he is around Brian though, Ace seems to know to tone it back a bit. He has this sense that his playful manner may come across as too much for Brian to handle. 

Aside from Ace, Brian also participated in horseback riding therapy for a few years at Thorncroft Equestrain Center. This center helps all people with disabilities and special needs. Through numerous scientific studies, results have shown that riding horses “provides balance, strength, mobility, and improved self esteem.” These horses, along with autism service dogs, can do wonders for those with the disorder. Both of these animals have an understanding of who autistic people are. A relationship develops between them that needs no words. Just watch and you’ll see the bond between them. 

Down in Florida, another non-profit charity program has gained significant notoriety in autism therapy. Island Dolphin Care brings together one of the most gentle creatures of the ocean with the some of the most gentle people on land. The organization also works with children at risk and wounded veterans. One family praised the charity, saying their son became “alive and vibrant” when interacting with the dolphins.

Photo from Island Dolphin Care website.

Photo from Island Dolphin Care website.

It’s sometimes strange to think about how close we become with our animals. We never converse in a single conversation, yet we form a relationship that is sometimes deeper than we have with our own friends and family. I think this happens because animals accept us for us. Their loyalty never waivers no matter what we do. At the end of the day, they will always be by our sides.




*A commenter brought up another non-profit organization called Autism Service Dogs of America


7 thoughts on “Animals and autism

  1. Fairy Godmother

    Sounds like the Foti Family needs a dog – I can help with that……….
    Great Blog Tom!

  2. Snow White

    You connected perfectly on this post. Words are not a requirement in order to develop a trusting and beautiful relationship. It’s all about acceptance and non-conditional kindness. Brilliant message!!!

  3. Goodness greef

    Thankyou for the lovely post! I myself have always found that my dog is my best listener and my best friend. (Not to say that the humans in my life don’t help me too, its just different 🙂

  4. laurelolivergilmore

    Autism Service Dogs of America is another great nonprofit that places autism service dogs! The connections made and progress seen daily for families of individuals with autism who have service dogs never ceases to amaze me!

  5. Princess Jasmine

    Although it seems that after this post my mom is trying to get rid of my dog, I completely agree that animals have that sixth sense. Jenny can tell when we are upset and automatically comes over and tries to comfort us. I know I am commenting a little late, but I wanted to go back and read through everything I didn’t get a chance to read yet. This is a great blog Tom!

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