A fear of snakes seems almost universal–many think humans are hardwired to fear them. But snakes can actually make incredible family pets for children, and can be especially good for children who are neurodivergent. Skeptical?
Here are eight reasons to consider a snake for your neurodivergent child:
1. Snakes are an exceptionally easy pet to care for.
A snake’s daily care needs are almost nonexistent, and its weekly care needs are minimal. They only need to eat every 7-14 days, and their food (mice or rats) can be stored in the freezer.
If you have their heat lamp on a timer and fill up their water bowl, you can go on a week-long trip without worry. For children in general, and for neurodivergent children in particular, having a hardy pet that can survive a day or two of forgetfulness, or one that doesn’t need daily care, leaves reassurance and safety for the child to have a tough day and that’s okay.
Local snake parent Robin says, “The low-maintenance of snakes is helpful for neurodivergent kids!”
Snake parent Joie, who is neurodivergent, agrees that a snake’s hardiness is incredibly helpful, “Because snakes are pretty low-maintenance pets, I can easily meet their care needs that I wouldn’t otherwise be able to with a higher-maintenance pet.”
2. A snake’s touch is soothing and grounding.
For children with sensory needs–which is highly common with neurodivergent children–a snake can be far better than a dog or other pet which moves quickly, can overstimulate, and startle a child. Domesticated snakes are often slow, very steady, and use a fairly consistent amount of pressure.
Snake parent Joie comments, “My snakes and neurodivergence are super connected! Both of my snakes are ball pythons, so they move fairly slowly and are pretty big. The slow moving pressure they give is really grounding and secure, and helps meet some of my co-regulating touch needs without the overstimulation that can come from humans for me.”
Lisa Lorenz, a former teacher and executive director at an autistic program for children, agrees, “We have been finding amazing success with kids with sensory needs in particular. The snakes, they move slowly, they are heavy — there is a weight piece of it that adds to the joint pressure and the sensory input for the kids on the spectrum.”
3. Snakes are excellent at teaching theory-of-mind and empathy.
Snakes are so different from humans. Their methods of communicating are subtle or even alien to us, and their body language is, well, limited to whatever a long rope can do.
Knowing that other people don’t share the same feelings and thoughts we do and have their own valid different perspectives is “theory of mind,” and it is an incredibly important part of childhood development. Children in general need to work hard to develop this, and for those who are neurodivergent, it is even harder for them.
For interactions with peers, it’s easy to assume that this friend has the same feelings you do, because they look like you and act like you. For interactions with dogs and cats–although they are great at teaching empathy and boundaries–their emotions and communication still bear similarities to humans by virtue of being mammals that make noises, have paws, and are social and play.
Snakes are so clearly different from humans that children are almost forced into realizing that their existing framework of “oh they’ll want just what I want” is not going to cut it here. A child who wants to understand their snake must put real thought and effort into it.
Local snake parent Robin adds an important note: “Snakes are subtle — they don’t communicate in ways that more typical pets do, and children who have trouble communicating can relate to that, or even understand a snake in ways average children don’t.” She jests, “Neurodivergent children are more likely to speak parseltongue!”
4. Snakes provide excellent learning opportunities.
How do snakes communicate? How can your child tell when they want to be held, and when they want space? What happens if they’re shedding, or having a tough shed?
Children naturally love learning, and neurodivergent children in general are renown for going down rabbit-trails and intensely focusing on learning a new topic. Having a pet snake provides a great opportunity for researching videos or books, following snake owners in the field, and translating that data into the child’s relationship with their pet snake.
5. Snakes are good for other mental health needs too.
With their calming nature and gentle squeezes, snakes are shown to help with anxiety, PTSD, and depression. They are also great for children who are non-verbal, as they provide an incredibly judgment-free space, and one does not need to talk to a snake in order to communicate or play with it.
6. Snakes can even show affection.
A snake will never greet a child like a dog or a cat will, which can be a pro for some children who get easily overstimulated, and a con for others. But snakes develop a rapport with the people who handle them regularly. My ball python exhibits no signs of stress around me, and immediately uncurls to explore and sniff–but with strange people, he stays more balled up and cautious. They also ask to play when they want to–all of my snakes will poke their snoots out of their hides and sniff along the top of their cage when they hear my voice and want to come and play. Such gentle feedback can be great for some children.
7. They’re not expensive.
Once you have a snake’s set-up–and enclosure, a few hides, a water bowl, substrate, a heat lamp, and a heat lamp timer–the only costs are frozen mice/rats, and bulbs for their heat lamp.
One can use recycled newspaper, packing paper, or cardboard for substrate, and snakes love cardboard boxes as hides. I recommend ordering frozen rodents online at places like The Big Cheese Factory as they’re substantially cheaper than pet stores.
8. Research shows, kids love snakes.
Over the course of three years, several scientists studying animal-assisted therapy brought in a friendly dog, a rabbit, and a snake to group activities with children with disabilities and behavioral problems.
Children could touch, pet, or hold all of the animals. When children were offered the choice of which animal to interact with, most chose the snake (39% mean) over the dog (27%) or rabbit (25%).
The results indicate that the desire of children to interact with snakes was so strong, it even outweighed the pressure of cultural stereotypes and fears that they had already been exposed to. This beautifully complements snake parent Robin’s observation that children who have difficulty communicating, regardless of the “why”, can find camaraderie or understanding with snakes.
Ready to buy a snake?
You’re sold! Where can you get a snake for your kiddo?
First, do your research on good beginner snakes. A ball python (my favorite), corn snake, or rosy boa are all great choices.
Second, it’s generally recommended to not buy your snake from a pet store. There are a lot of ethical concerns around how most pet stores obtain and house their snakes.
Join local Facebook reptile groups to find rehomed or hatchling snakes. Go to a local reptile expo (easy to use Google or Facebook to find ones like this) or visit online forums for snakes that are being rehomed.
If you’d like to meet the snakes featured in this article for a birthday party, a photoshoot, or a summer camp, check out Medusa’s Wardrobe.