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Does Autism Exist In Animals?

Updated on March 6, 2013

Can an animal be autistic?

Autism in humans is characterized by delays in speech (sometimes...some autism spectrum children actually develop speech and reading skills faster) and difficulty reading body language. Children and adults with autism may have issues with non-verbal communication skills and may lack empathy. Often, they have difficulty starting and continuing conversations and may be mistakenly considered to be shy. They can lack a sense of humor.

Autistic individuals like their routine and do not like when things change. In some cases, they may appear to have OCD (obsessive compulsive disorder). They may insist on eating lunch at the exact same time every day or always driving the same route to work or school. In some cases they can be highly focused on a specific thing...including video games, trains or math. Autistic individuals may be prone to panic attacks and anxiety. They often find noisy places and crowds over-stimulating. Some are clumsy and have difficulty with balance.

Obviously, in an animal, speech delays would not be visible. But can an animal be autistic, or is this condition unique to humans?

Autistics and Animals

It has actually been argued that all animals are autistic. Individuals with an autism spectrum disorder, be it mainstream autism or Asperger's or another variant often find they can deal with animals better than people.

Noted animal behaviorist and livestock expert Temple Grandin is mildly autistic and believes that she thinks more like animals than humans. Therapy animals are often used to treat children with autism and one common recommendation doctors give parents of children with Asperger's or mild autism is that the child take up horse riding. It helps balance, coordination and social development.

If that is true then it would obviously be impossible for animals to be autistic, as what we consider 'autism' is actually the animal's natural way of thinking.

Repetitive Behavior

Have any of what we consider the symptoms of autism been observed in animals?

The first thing that comes to my mind is the repetitive rocking behavior seen in severely autistic children. Autistics may also engage in repetitive hand motions...flapping or drumming on their legs.

Repetitive behavior is seen commonly in animals that are restricted from their normal movement. It is particularly well known in horses where it takes the form of stall walking (pacing) or weaving (rocking from side to side). These behaviors in horses often show up when the horse is on stall rest or in barns where horses are seldom turned out. Some horses may also weave when being hauled more than a short distance. Does this mean horses are autistic?

Weaving is considered a 'stable vice', an undesirable behavior that normally occurs in the stable or barn. Most horsemen consider a horse that weaves to be...bored. Nothing more, nothing less. The behavior often vanishes when the horse is turned out or worked harder, although some horses may weave their entire lives. However, I have observed some horses kept on stall rest for months (literally) never develop the habit.

So, is a horse with a predisposition to weave just a little bit autistic? Or does it mean it's a little smarter than the average horse and gets bored more easily?

Another repetitive behavior, that of insisting on always going the same route to get somewhere is commonly demonstrated by cats. Cats often seem to have issues grasping that more than one route can lead to the same place.

From this, we begin to realize that if an animal is autistic it has to be in relation to the rest of its species...and certain autistic traits are completely normal in certain species.

Symptoms of 'Autism' in a Horse

The horse concerned is a teenaged Quarter Horse gelding. Throughout his life, this horse has been difficult to train. He takes longer to learn signals and cues directed at him by humans and could easily be mistaken for slow or stupid.

In addition, he has high levels of anxiety and can randomly 'explode', spooking crazily at the slightest thing...a camera flash, his own shadow, somebody reading a newspaper. When he does spook, it's not a little jump and then stop...he's been known to run the length of the arena because somebody sitting next to it turned a page in the book they were reading as he went past. He needs a lot of reassurance and utter confidence from his rider.

He is also extremely clumsy and has always had difficulty balancing himself. Without a lot of help and direction from a skilled rider, he tends to fall over his own hooves.

Is he autistic? Perhaps. He certainly seems to have something neurological going on.

Other Anecdotes

One researched observed a coyote pup that did not respond to the play signals of its litter mates. It did not know what the classic play bow (front paws extended, shoulders lowered, butt in the air, tail wagging) meant. (Every dog owner knows what it means, or should).

Lab mice from a certain strain demonstrate higher levels of intelligence and learning capability coupled with low social skills - in other words, they certainly appear to be autistic savants. These mice are now being used in research to hopefully help autistic humans.

So, can animals be autistic?

The truth's actually hard to tell. Even some high functioning autistic or Asperger's humans go undiagnosed for years.

Determining that a cat, dog or horse has a learning disability is all but impossible. My knee jerk feeling is that full blown autism would not exist in animals as it is far too focused around language and thinking in language (some autistic individuals think in pictures and images and have to translate everything to words). However, some animals do appear to show symptoms similar to autism, perhaps indicating that the condition exists in some form, but does not affect them in the same way. Any thoughts on the matter need to take into account behavior that is normal for the species.


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    • jenniferrpovey profile image

      jenniferrpovey 4 years ago

      Actually, we now suspect this horse had a neurological disease at some point which can leave lingering symptoms - that fit his issues perfectly.

    • profile image

      Joseph D Smith 4 years ago

      I have noticed the patterns of animals in relation to autistic people. Your horse appears to have Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder(PTSD). He is spooked by noises, rather than stimulation. I am autistic, and I know that I am not spooked by mere noises.

      Great article my friend! Keep up the wonderful work! May you be blessed, forever.

    • rebeccamealey profile image

      Rebecca Mealey 5 years ago from Northeastern Georgia, USA

      This is an interesting concept to explore! Thanks for sharing your insight

    • DanaTeresa profile image

      Dana Strang 5 years ago from Ohio

      Very interesting. You are right when you say that you must consider an animals behavior in relation to other members of it species. The bit about the coyote pup reminds me a little of my cat. I worte a few hubs about him. You have inspired me to do some more research. Thanks!