I'm thinking of giving my autistic character a pet (probably a cat). What kind of concerns are there? Would it overall be helpful, or would it be overwhelming? Thanks!
As for pretty much every question concerning autism, the answer is “it depends” - on the person, and also on the animal.
Here are the main issues an autistic person might have with having an animal:
- The noise. If it’s a cat who meows a lot, or a dog who barks a lot, or a bird, it might be difficult to get to a quiet space when your character is overloaded and needs a break from sensory stimulation.
- Executive dysfunction can make it hard to take care of yourself, let alone of another living being who completely depends on you. Same for lack of energy/spoons. Having a pet adds tasks which have to be done everyday (feeding it, walking it…), which can be difficult sometimes/ always. If your character has very few spoons left, will they use them to feed themselves or their pet ? This is especially true for animals which need a lot of specialized care, such as “exotic pets” or pets with an illness.
A cat generally needs less care than most other pets, so it might indeed be a good choice for your character. The ideal would be a very quiet cat who doesn’t meow a lot, and if possible, having someone else to take care of it (a roommate/partner/parent…) if your character is ever unable to do so because of lack of spoons/executive dysfunction.
But having a pet can also be very nice, enjoyable and even helpful to an autistic person for a whole variety of reasons. I’ll go with a cat as an example. Here are some of the benefits of having a cat for an autistic person:
- The regular joy that a cat provides to any owner by being adorable and funny and a cat.
- So soft!!! Great for texture stimming
- If it’s a big cat who likes to sit on you, pressure!
- Purring is such a nice sound
- Great source of comfort when the world gets too much
- Having a responsability and another being who depends on you can actually help with executive dysfunction, because that motivation can be stronger than inertia sometimes
Some types of cats are better for autistic people than others, too. Certain “breeds” have calmer temperaments. More active cats require more attention and energy to care for. An autistic person can often care for a cat without help, depending on what issues they have.
Assuming the person is able to care for the cat, there are indeed a lot of potential benefits, as Mod Cat said. Cats are also very sensitive animals. If they have a strong bond with their human, they can respond to the human’s needs, being calmer when the human needs to be calmed down, for example, demanding to be played with when the human is depressed and needs motivation to get up and move around.
My personal example: I live alone, thus far unsuccessful in my attempts to find a successful romantic relationship. I often struggle with depression, and the cat forces me to get up and move. He won’t let me sleep late - he’ll get me up to feed him (when young he tried to do so with claws, but I trained him instead to lie on my chest and purr until I was able to get up). If I’ve been sitting around for too long, he pushes me to play with him. If I’m sad, drained, unable to play, he will instead curl up next to me wherever I am and either purr or fall asleep. When I have meltdowns, he keeps a distance until I’ve calmed down, then curls up with me to help me relax. He sleeps in my bed with me like a teddy bear so I don’t feel lonely. Even when I struggle with self-care, I am always able to care for him - it has a very high priority in my mind and can, as Cat describes, help get me going when I’m having trouble with executive functioning.
Some people also have or train specific “therapy cats” for autistic people. These are cats with a very calm temperament, who are not bothered no matter what the human does, and which are always available for cuddles and purrs when the person needs them