Can pets do things for us that other humans can’t?
In her ground-breaking book Thinking in Pictures, the autistic animal scientist Professor Temple Grandin talks at length about spending time with farm animals and learning to gain their trust. She also wrote a chapter on the brain chemicals that can help neurodiverse people to be happier, more comfortable and even to help shed the various ways our nervous systems derp on us. Grandin’s chapter on brain chemistry is seriously a classic. If you’re awkward, make the pilgrimage through this book at some point in your life.
There’s plenty to say about autism and brain chemicals, but it’s important to know about oxytocin.
Oxytocin is the human bonding chemical. It floods us with a sense of meaning and warmth. It might be the most important chemical of all for people on the spectrum, because it’s so easy for us to become isolated from bonds. When we go without it, it can interrupt our nervous system and destroy our self esteem. If you’ve ever become awkward and unable to move properly when you feel bad about yourself, this could be why.
Grandin had a lot of success treating her chemical issues with medication. But is there something else that can help treat a lack of bonding chemical?
The best answer by far that I can find is a pet.
I’m not saying that by reading this you need a dog, there’s no need to go full druid because the Internet said so, but I’m going to offer you the idea. So get in a nice, sceptical frame of mind and let’s plough through the facts.
First we have to look at the other popular options:
Sex work. Some people swear by this one, especially if it’s legal and regulated where you are. Legal sex work deserves support. Still, the cost minus the amount of time you spend full of oxytocin is astronomical. If this one interests you, learn the signs that your worker isn’t being trafficked.
Weird hobbies. If you live somewhere progressive, you might have laughter yoga or sessions where you stare into someone’s eyes, or any old spiritual congregation. Not everyone can get into these, but if your creative mind allows it and you feel called to one of these, they will regularly dose you with good chemicals. Faith is a reliable cure for alcoholism. No specific kind, just faith.
The easiest cure for oxytocin deficiency is a 20-second hug. Oxytocin is the bonding chemical, it’s tied to dopamine and endorphins (the brain’s other feel-good chemicals). A huge problem for neurodiverse people, something that literally affects my nervous system and stops me moving properly, is oxytocin deficiency.
Now you might get squeamish when others touch you, and it’s rare to find someone who’ll let you hug them so long. These things are okay. But even imagining a long hug with someone you feel good around will arouse the oxytocin. I recommend imagining it for 60 seconds, since there’s some evidence that vividly imagining yourself doing something has a third the physical effect of really doing it. The jury’s out, though.
Grandin talks mostly about cows and how living with them taught her that they’re all individuals. Animals are people who think a different way to your average human. She believes that cows and many people with autism think in mental images rather than abstract ideas. She also mentions there’s a medicine that stops stallions nervously biting their own chests, which keeps autistic children from self-harming for comfort. She’s built a real connection with farm animals. Grandin is hard working, celibate and content.
But farm animals are big. You can’t get a horseflap in your back door … can you?
Different animals will stimulate you in different ways.
We call dogs humanity’s best friend. They’re more like a scrappy adopted child that, genetically speaking, we like to put in silly costumes. The canis familiaris was bred by people, crafted over thousands of years into the perfect friend. This includes the wild dogs that philosophers loved. We even have Ancient Roman sources saying different breeds have different personalities. You can choose what kind of influence you want in your life according to breed. Jack Russels never run out of energy. Golden retrievers are incredibly friendly. Huskies need, need, need a daily routine and can’t stand being alone. Dogs stick by you.
There’s a picture book called All Cats Have Asperger Syndrome. Keep in mind, Grandin said that about cows. I say it about most neurotypicals I meet. But it makes a convincing case. Cats come and go as they please, and have ways of showing affection that only make sense in their little world (like bringing you stuff they hunted, because they never see humans hunting and don’t want us to starve).
Then you have the affection animals who aren’t apex predators: rabbits, guinea pigs, turtles and other white meat that will learn to love you over time as you feed them.
If you need a routine, adding an animal to it won’t take too much preparation. It’ll reward you far more than it costs. It’s good for the animal too — every creature that craves affection can’t be alone too long, including you. I say this as someone who is between pets right now, but is in a relationship. I get my affection from humans, chaotic unpredictable beautiful humans.
For the rest of us, there will always be warm dependable lumps of fur that enjoy seeing us.