You’ve probably heard of some of the health benefits of owning pets. They lower blood pressure, help us to destress, prevent allergies and improve immunity and help us to be in an overall better mood. But researchers have found they have significant effects on autistic children and their social skills.
There have have been reports before in the media about dogs in the home improving the social skills of autistic children, but a researcher at the University of Missouri found that these children benefit from any kind of pet in the home.
“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,” Gretchen Carlisle said in a news release. “More significantly, however, the data revealed that children with andy 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.”
Carlisle described pets as “social lubricants” that cause children to talk and engage more especially in social setting like a classroom. This effect extends to autistic children, causing them to become more assertive if they grow up with pets in the home.
“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.” The strongest attachment seemed to be with autistic children and small dogs, but the children in the study had all different kinds of pets.
Carlisle looked at 70 families with autistic children between the ages of eight and 18. Almost 70 percent of the families that participated had dogs and about half had cats. Other pets the families had included fish, farm animals, rodents, rabbits, reptiles, birds and even one spider.
“Dogs are good for some kids with autism but might not be the best option for every child,” Carlisle said. “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 great social skills for children with autism who live in homes with any type of pet.”
The findings are published in the Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders.