Saturday, January 10, 2015

Living with pets linked to stronger social skills in children with autism

A new study suggests that not only having pet dogs in the home, but also living with cats, rabbits and other animals as pets may help children with autism improve their social skills.

Previous studies show that pets encourage social interaction, and there have been reports of dogs helping children with autism develop their social skills. But before this new study, from a researcher the University of Missouri (MU), nobody had shown this might also true of other types of pet.

Dr. Gretchen Carlisle, research fellow in the MU College of Veterinary Medicine's Research Center for Human-Animal Interaction (ReCHAI), says when pets are present in the home, the classroom, or other social setting, children tend to interact and talk to each other more.

The pets serve as "social lubricants," she explains, noting that this increase in social interaction when pets are around also appears to be true of children with autism. This could account for the increased
assertiveness she found in autistic children who had pets living at home.

"Kids with autism don't always readily engage with others," says Dr. Carlisle, "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."

Children with autism more likely to engage social behavior when living with a pet

For the study, Dr. Carlisle surveyed parents of autistic patients attending the MU Thompson Center for Autism and Neurodevelopmental Disorders. Altogether, she surveyed 70 families, with patients ranging in age from 8 to 18 years.

Nearly 70% of the families had dogs and around 50% had cats. Smaller proportions also had other pets, including farm animals, reptiles, rodents, rabbits, fish, a bird and even a spider.

Dr. Carlisle compared the survey results with assessments of the children's social skills and found those who lived with dogs appeared to have greater social skills.

She also found the longer the children had lived with a dog at home, the better their social skills. And it seems the strongest bonds were with smaller dogs.

But the results also showed links between greater social skills and living with any kind of pet - not just dogs, as Dr. Carlisle comments:

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