Special needs, special friends: how pets help kids with autism, disabilities

Amanda Collins Bernier
Kristiana Cake has more confidence, and her mom, Kimberly more peace of mind, since welcoming service dog Matti into their family this spring.

Though the pandemic has upturned much of Kimberly Cake’s life -- she’s navigating the complexities of raising a child with special needs in the COVID-era, not to mention remote Kindergarten -- the Sutton mom has been sleeping more soundly since the world changed in March. 

As schools and communities were shutting down, the Cake family was opening their home to a new family member. One with four legs. 

Manhattan, or Matti, for short, a two-year-old Golden Retriever/Labrador, has brought peace, comfort and happiness since she came into the Cakes’ lives this spring. A seizure alert, autism assistance and mobility assistance dog, Matti is trained for the specific needs of Cake’s 5-year-old daughter, Kristiana.  

Born at 24 weeks, weighing just over 1 pound, Kristiana has had more than her share of obstacles from the very start -- a brain bleed, a hole in her heart, a tracheotomy, just to name a few. When she was diagnosed with autism at 2 ½, her parents began the long process of finding a service dog. 

“We’d heard dogs can do great things for kids with autism,” said Cake. “We knew a dog could be a social bridge to help her connect with people and help calm her during meltdowns.” 

Service dogs are being used increasingly to help children who have learning, behavioral, or developmental challenges. They are bred for a calm temperament so they don’t react to even the most extreme behaviors such as screaming, impulsivity, and aggression. First used to guide the blind, service dogs can be trained to perform specific tasks to address a particular disability. 

Autism assistance dogs, for instance, can be trained to distract and disrupt repetitive behaviors or meltdowns, to prevent and protect a child from wandering, and in tracking to locate a child who has wandered. 

As Kristiana was put on the waitlist for her dog, she was dealt another blow. She was diagnosed with epilepsy just before turning three, then also with a mild case of Cerebral palsy. 

“At that point we were so glad we had started the long process for a service dog,” said Cake. “It felt like every time we thought something leveled off, there was something new.” But Matti’s trainers kept assuring her, “that’s OK, we can train her for that too,” she said. 

When Matti and Kristiana first met in March, the bond was instant. “Right away, they were this little dynamic duo,” said Cake. Indeed, they had both been waiting for each other: Matti for the girl she’d trained nearly her whole life to care for, and Kristiana for the dog who would make her feel “safe and brave.” 

The changes Matti has brought have been profound, said Cake. Kristiana tolerates doctors appointments better, sleeps better, gets around easier, and has a new way of connecting socially. “This is my Matti,” she’ll tell anyone she meets. They play dress up, have princess parties, and sleep together every night. 

For Cake and her husband, she’s brought peace of mind. Already, Matti has alerted them to four seizures. 

“We see her working daily,” said Cake, “but Kristiana just sees her best friend.” 

Special needs, special friends

While Matti, trained as an advanced assistance dog by Ohio-based 4 Paws for Ability, is the right companion for Kristiana, experts say service dogs aren't the only animals that help children with special needs. 

According to a University of Missouri study, children with autism form attachments to a variety of small pets — dogs, cats, even rabbits and guinea pigs — and those with pets may develop stronger social and communication skills.

But children with a myriad special needs, not just autism, can benefit from the presence of animals. Reluctant readers may feel more comfortable reading aloud to a patient, nonjudgmental animal, for instance, or children with physical disabilities can find relaxation and improved balance and coordination in the rhythm of horseback riding. And animals with no special training can still offer comfort and affection through qualities like playfulness, soft fur, or a relaxing purr.

While parents can seek out animal therapy and services, Rachel Goclawski found support for her two daughters in an unexpected place -- right in her backyard coop. The Millbury mom of girls ages 11 and 9 has been raising chickens since her daughters were toddlers. 

“I first noticed chickens helped them with their special needs a couple years later when they would come home from school over-stimulated, anxious or upset and I would see how much the chickens would calm them and the smiles would just come right out,” she said. 

Caring for the chickens has provided Goclawski’s younger daughter, who has ADHD, with an opportunity to practice skills she needs to work on like discipline, focus, delayed gratification and impulse control. And in the past few months the birds have been particularly helpful for her older daughter, who is on the spectrum and struggled to adjust to remote learning. 

“She has anxiety, had panic attacks and many meltdowns over the first few months (of quarantine),” she said. “Nothing calmed her and gave her joy more than those baby chicks, her favorite full-grown chicken as well.” 

According to Modern Farmer, when socialized and supervised properly, specific animals, including chickens, can offer a wide range of therapeutic benefits to children and adolescents with autism as well as conditions including anxiety, depression and attachment issues.

“Nothing is more calming than to watch them scratch and forage, and to listen to the noises they make,” Goclawski said. 

Pets help parents, too 

The benefits of animals and special needs families extends beyond the children. New research from research from the University of Missouri has found that pets lead to strong bonds and reduced stress for both children with special needs and their parents.

Gretchen Carlisle, a research scientist with the Research Center for Human-Animal Interaction in the MU College of Veterinary Medicine, surveyed more than 700 families from the Interactive Autism Network on the benefits and burdens of having a dog or cat in the family. She found that despite the responsibility of pet care, both children with autism and their parents reported strong bonds with their pets. 

Pet ownership was not related to parent stress, and parents with multiple pets reported more benefits.

“Given that the characteristics of autism spectrum disorder are so broad, it can be difficult to identify interventions that are widely beneficial,” Carlisle said. “Some of the core challenges that children with autism face include anxiety and difficulty communicating. As pets can help increase social interaction and decrease anxiety, we found that they are not only helpful in providing comfort and support to children with autism, but to their parents as well.”

For parents considering adding a pet into their family, Carlisle recommends including the child in the decision and making sure the pet’s activity level is a good match with the child’s, as some kids have specific sensitivities. 

“A big, loud dog that is highly active might cause sensory overload for a particular child, while a quiet cat may be a better fit,” Carlisle said.

The Goclawski family, of Millbury, has found unexpected therapeutic benefits from raising chickens.