Autism and cats

About autism

Autism is a lifelong developmental disability that affects how people communicate and interact with the world. One in 100 people are on the autism spectrum, and there are around 700,000 autistic adults and children in the UK. These people can:

  • find it hard to understand how other people think or feel
  • find things like bright lights or loud noises overwhelming, stressful or uncomfortable
  • get anxious or upset about unfamiliar situations and social events
  • take longer to understand information
  • do or think the same things over and over

Many autistic adults experience ‘autistic burnout’, which is characterised by chronic exhaustion, loss of skills, and reduced tolerance to stimulus. It’s thought that this autistic fatigue is due to the pressures of everyday life, having to navigate social situations and sensory overload.

According to the National Autistic Society, 94% of autistic adults experienced anxiety. Almost six in ten said this affected their ability to get on with life. 83% experienced depression. Another study suggests 66% of adults with autism have contemplated suicide. In another study, 16.7% of autistic adults interviewed said they did not take their own lives because of their dogs.

Autism assistance animals

There is limited awareness of autism assistance animals. The training of dogs to assist an autistic person is still in relative infancy (the first was in 1996). Each dog is trained similarly to a guide dog, going through a rigorous process to prepare them for situations specific to the person that they are paired with. The goal, of course, is to assist this person in alleviating the effect of their disability and to meet standards of hygiene and behaviour appropriate for an animal in a public place.

UK assistance dog charity Dogs for Good has just one dog paired with an autistic adult. Other UK charities appear to have none. The reason is not lack of demand or need. Charities cannot keep up with the existing demand from parents of autistic children. Many waiting lists are closed, and where they are open, the average wait is six years. Suddenly, owner-training a cat as an autism assistance animal makes perfect sense.

Cats as autism assistance animals

The use of cats as an autism assistance animal is generally saved for international bestsellers like ‘A Friend Like Ben’, ‘When Fraser Met Billy’, and ‘Iris Grace.’ However, studies have also shown that introducing a cat with a calm temperament results in greater empathy and less separation anxiety for autistic children, along with fewer ‘problem behaviours’, including hyperactivity and inattention.

Research also indicates that animal-assisted therapy can reduce perceived stress and symptoms of agoraphobia and improve social awareness and communication in autistic adults of normal to high intelligence.

While much of this research has taken place using dogs, there is evidence that autistic people are more comfortable with a cat’s less ‘invasive’ short glances than a dog’s longer gazing behaviour.

Initial research has provided preliminary support for the use of assistance animals with some autistic individuals. The benefits are increased social interaction and communication as well as reduced anxiety and stress.

How cats can help

Research conducted by Craig R. Evans in 2012-2013 for the book ‘Been There. Done That. Try This!: An Aspie’s Guide to Life on Earth’ had high-functioning autistic people rank 17 causes of stress:

  1. Anxiety 98%
  2. Self-esteem/self-identity 95%
  3. Aversion to change 87%
  4. Meltdowns 87%
  5. Depression 87%
  6. Sensory issues 86%
  7. Making and keeping friends 86%
  8. Personal management issues 85%
  9. Intimacy, dating, sex, marriage 85%
  10. Emotional availability 85%
  11. Faking it 84%
  12. Getting and keeping a job 83%
  13. Disclosing a diagnosis 79%
  14. Bullying 77%
  15. Choosing a career 76%
  16. Empathetic attunement 75%
  17. Being diagnosed 67%

Research suggests an autism assistance animal can help address the first (and most significant) six. A 2012 study suggests that interacting with animals also may:

  • reduce depression and improve mood
  • encourage more positive interactions with other people
  • lower cortisol levels, which is one of the body’s primary stress hormone
  • slower heart rate and blood pressure
  • lower reported fear and anxiety

Training my cat Chloe to be an autism assistance animal has further helped with:

  • introducing routines and structure
    • promoting healthy sleep
    • improving eating and exercise patterns
    • medication reminders
  • easing difficult and unexpected transitions
  • reducing anxiety and de-escalating meltdowns
  • recognising and interrupting repetitive behaviour
  • maintaining communication, social bonds, and social skills

This support is consistent with that delivered by autism assistance dogs trained by Dogs for Autism, Autism Dogs CIC, Darwin Dogs, and Dogs for Good.

Cats benefit too

A recent study at the University of Missouri shows that joining a family with an autistic child does wonders for the felines too. Over the study period of 18 weeks, the researchers found a significant decrease in cortisol – a stress measure. The cats also gained and maintained weight, suggesting they had acclimated well to their new homes.


Further reading