Pets bring kids with autism out of their shells

(Credit: Piers Nye/Flickr)

Pet dogs are known to improve the social skills of children with autism, but new research suggests that any pet may offer the same benefits.

“When I compared the social skills of children with autism who lived with dogs to those who did not, the children with dogs appeared to have greater social skills,” says Gretchen Carlisle, research fellow at the Research Center for Human-Animal Interaction (ReCHAI) at University of Missouri.


“More significantly, however, the data revealed that children with any kind of pet in the home reported being more likely to engage in behaviors such as introducing themselves, asking for information, or responding to other people’s questions.

“These kinds of social skills typically are difficult for kids with autism, but this study showed children’s assertiveness was greater if they lived with a pet.”

Pets often serve as “social lubricants,” Carlisle says. When pets are present in social settings or a classroom, children talk and engage more with one another. This effect also seems to apply to children with autism and could account for their increased assertiveness.

“When children with disabilities take their service dogs out in public, other kids stop and engage,” Carlisle says. “Kids with autism don’t always readily engage with others, but if there’s a pet in the home that the child is bonded with and a visitor starts asking about the pet, the child may be more likely to respond.”

Fish, farm animals, and rodents

The longer a family owns a dog, the more the child’s social skills increases, Carlisle says, but older children rate their relationships with their dogs as weaker. When children were asked, they reported the strongest attachments to smaller dogs.

“Finding children with autism to be more strongly bonded to smaller dogs, and parents reporting strong attachments between their children and other pets, such as rabbits or cats, serves as evidence that other types of pets could benefit children with autism as well,” Carlisle says.

For the study, published in the Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 70 families who have children with autism between the ages of 8 and 18 were surveyed. Almost 70 percent of the families that participated had dogs, and about half of the families had cats. Other pets owned by participants included fish, farm animals, rodents, rabbits, reptiles, a bird, and a spider.

“Dogs are good for some kids with autism but might not be the best option for every child,” Carlisle says. “Kids with autism are highly individual and unique, so some other animals may provide just as much benefit as dogs.

“Though parents may assume having dogs are best to help their children, my data show greater social skills for children with autism who live in homes with any type of pet.”

Source: University of Missouri