Although autistic people have long been considered to be lacking in empathy, the strong bonds between many autistic people and animals supports an alternate theory.
As many people in the autism community know, there is great variation on the autism spectrum. When it comes to animals, some autistics find animal relationships not only more tolerable than human ones, but a necessity, such as with autism service animals. At the same time, other autistics can find animal experiences stressful and struggle with sensory overwhelm induced by barking or meowing.
Today, I would like to focus on the group of autistics that I am apart of: those who depend heavily on animal relationships.
Although my family had many animals during my childhood, my first dog that was truly my own was a black pug named Tad Pole. I had begged my parents and Santa Claus for him, never imagining either would give in. But then, one snowy Christmas morning, I walked down stairs to find a small black puppy from the big, jolly man himself. I have never had a more surprising or exciting Christmas since and I doubt I ever will again.
I had Tad Pole for 13 years before he sadly passed away in 2020 due to cancer. Looking back at my childhood now, knowing I am autistic, I can’t help but wonder what my life might have been like without Tad.
Like many autistic people, I struggle with making and keeping friends. Despite this, Tad Pole was always there for me. If I had a bad day at school, I could go be with him, without the pressure of having to verbalize my emotions or interpret his response. Having interactions with Tad likely helped advance my social skills, aiding me in navigating an allistic world.
Additionally, I think myself and other autistics often don’t experience the same level of “social threat” from dogs. Dogs are much more simple than people. If you love them, they will love you. They don’t understand all of the intricacies of neurotypical human relationships. As an autistic person who doesn’t either, I find we have a lot in common.
Some people argue that relationships between autistics and animals, like mine with my dog, are evidence that autistics have an excess of empathy. They argue that if autistic people truly had empathy deficits, they would be unable to develop close bonds with animals. This abundance of empathy potentially could be the reason for our difficulties in interpreting social cues.
I agree with these theories full-heartedly. As I have said before in my post, Autism and Empathy, I am not lacking in empathy. In fact, the empathy I have for my own dog, is often seen as “a bit much” by neurotypical outsiders.
Regardless of why animal relationships are so beneficial to me, I am incredibly grateful to possess the privilege to own a dog.
My current dog, Appa, is a jack russell terrier-australian cattle dog mix. He is cuddled in my bed next to me as I write this blog post. Having him in my life has been a blessing. Even when the rest of the world feels overwhelming, coming home and cuddling up next to him is a soothing experience that words alone cannot do justice in describing.
To my fellow autistic readers, what are your experiences with animals? Are they a necessity in your life? Or something you struggle with? Let me know in the comments!