Having four-pawed friends can lead to a longer happier life, recent studies have shown, but if you or someone you love is on the autistic spectrum and you are thinking of delving into the azure world of aquariums, know that you can reap significant benefits as well. Although no specific studies have been carried out on the use of aquariums by people with autism, one study carried out at the University of Exeter found that viewing fish swimming in their tank led to noticeable reductions in the blood pressure and heart rate, as well as enhanced and prolonged concentration and a better mood. Because people on the autistic spectrum can sometimes have difficulty focusing, having an aquarium can help them keep their mind ‘in the moment’ and help reduce stress.
One thing scientists have found is that children on the autistic spectrum who have pets reap significant rewards. A University of Missouri-Columbia study found that pets of all types can serve as ‘social lubricants’ for children with ASD. Scientists said that when pets are present in social settings, children are more likely to communicate and engage with each other. The study focused mainly on dogs, but the researchers stated that their findings were by no means limited to canines. One researcher claimed that “Kids with autism are highly individual and unique, so some other animals may provide just as much benefit as dogs… my data show greater social skills for children with autism who live in homes with any type of pet.”
It makes sense that children with autism should enjoy the calming effect that watching beautiful, colorful fish move in the water can bring. Those who feel overstimulated by the fast pace of daily life can sit back and reach a place of wonderful tranquillity as they watch their pets move gracefully through the water. Children who have had a particularly stressful day can also rely on EMDR tappers or EMDR buzzers, alternately contemplating their fish, since these devices help with sensory regulation.
These devices rely on bilateral stimulation, requiring children to look back and forth at hand-held buzzers that focus their attention alternately on their right and left hand. The rhythmic movement of the eyes is relaxing, and interestingly, similar to the movements made by children watching fish swim in an aquarium from side to side. This type of movement imitates REM sleep and helps the left and right hemispheres of the brain communicate better.
Although some people keep fish in bowls, keeping fish in an eco-friendly tank is recommended by experts, since water can be kept at a specific temperature, thus keeping preventing sharp variations that can affect fish health. A green tank is ideal because it will enable you to waste less energy and water. Moreover, elements such as natural stones will create interest and give your fish a chance to hide away when they are in the mood for a little ‘quiet time.’
Apart from sticking to a recommended temperature, employing the right amount of water, and buying the right plants for your aquarium, you can enjoy more time and independence as a fish owner. Your child with ASD may become very attached to their fish, and take part in routines such as feeding and cleaning, which is a great way to learn about and hone discipline and commitment.
If you are part of an ASD support group, then you will most likely find interesting reports from parents whose children benefit from having fish as pets. One parent, Miriam Gwynne, posted a blog on the many lessons her child on the autistic spectrum has learned from having a fish tank. These range from patience (since tanks require the testing of different chemicals and must be allowed to mature before adding ornaments and fish) right through to teamwork (different fish work well together, and some are fine on their own). One aquarium in Mystic, Connecticut, holds the Synergy Socials Program and Social Species from the Sea to Me, with a view to helping children with disabilities hone their social skills while being in the company of fish.
If your child has always wanted a pet but you are too busy for a dog or cat, think about the possibility of fish. Watching fish swim in an aquarium is known to relax the mind, and having any type of pet at all can bring major benefits to your child. Keeping fish alive and thriving requires maintenance and regular care, which your child can help you out with as part of their regular list of chores.
*This blog post was written by Lucy Wyndam.
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