The Bond Between Animals and the Autistic

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

A reader presents a really interesting theory about autism:

The ABA treatment [discussed earlier by readers] dates back to a time when psychologists theorized that autistic people could not readily interpret social cues because their empathy was too low, owing to defects in their brains. Today there is a challenge to that assumption: They may have *too much* empathy, and so social interactions are too loud and frightening, causing them to withdraw.

Which is true? The answer should drive treatment approaches. It’s quite possible that the Skinner approach works superficially to produce specific desired responses but isn’t at all optimum.

There is a clue supporting the “too much empathy” theory. Autistic kids and adults tend to do very well in socializing with cats, dogs, horses, etc. Interacting with animals brings out more advanced socialization skills, which they can then use, to some extent, with other humans. It appears that they perceive less social threat from animals, from whom unconditional love towards kindly humans is typical. If autistic people instead have low empathy, this result ought to be very unlikely.

Too much light will blind you. Too much sound will deafen you. And too much empathy may be responsible for autistic withdrawal and a reduced capacity for interpreting social cues. This needs to be nailed down before we should be eager to grant blanket approval to ABA therapy. Skepticism and critical thinking are warranted.

If you’re autistic and can personally attest to this connection, please send us a note.


For more reading, here’s a helpful post from the blog Aspertypical, written by a psychology grad student with Aspergers, called “Autistic Man’s Best Friend: The connection between pets and autism.” She in part points to the work of arguably the most famous American with autism, Temple Grandin, who has particularly strong insight when it comes to the animal connection:

Professor of animal science Dr Temple Grandin may be able to shed some light on this connection. In her paper ‘Thinking the Way Animals Do’, she describes how her autism makes it easier for her to understand animals, as her thinking processes are much like an animal’s. She explains how she often thinks in images, not language, much like an animal does. A horse trainer once told her that horses don’t think, they just make associations, to which she concluded that if making associations isn’t thinking, then she does not think either. It is true that those with autism often make strong associations to negative events, developing strange fears; the colour red, for example, is commonly associated with negative feelings for those with autism.

Finally another common factor between autistic man and animal is that fear is often the main emotion; both are often fearful of high pitched noises and become overwhelmed easily. So do people with autism prefer to be with animals and are more empathic towards them than humans because they understand their mental processes better?