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Autism and Pets: More Evidence of Social Benefits

No one-size-fits-all solution: Researcher emphasizes need to consider child’s sensitivities and family dynamics
April 15, 2014

A new study lends support to the idea that interacting with a pet benefits many children with autism. However, the author emphasizes the need to consider each child’s sensitivities as well as family dynamics in carefully considering pet ownership.

The study, published in the Journal of Pediatric Nursing, surveyed parents of children who had autism about the children’s interactions with dogs. Nearly two thirds of the families owned a dog. Of these, 94 percent said their child bonded strongly with the pet. Even in the families without dogs, 7 in 10 parents said their child enjoyed interacting with dogs.  

Previous research involving children with autism found that those who had a family pet from a young age tended to have greater social skills. Still other research has shown how social behaviors in children who have autism temporarily improve after even a short play period with a live animal such as a guinea pig (versus a toy). And a number of Autism Speaks Community Grants have supported successful equine-therapy programs for children with autism.

“Children with autism may especially benefit from interacting with dogs, which can provide unconditional, nonjudgmental love and companionship,” says the new study’s author, Gretchen Carlisle. Dr. Carlisle is a research fellow with the Research Center for Human-Animal Interaction at the University of Missouri College of Veterinary Medicine.

The need for careful consideration
Parents should consider their children’s sensitivities carefully when choosing a pet to ensure a good match, Dr. Carlisle emphasizes. “Bringing a dog into any family is a big step, but for families of children with autism, getting a dog should be a decision that’s taken very seriously,” she says. For example, a child who is easily agitated or has sensitivities to noise may have great difficulty with an extremely active dog or one that tends to bark.

Although her study addressed dog ownership, Dr. Carlisle emphasized that other pets may be better suited for particular children and families.

To learn more about programs that train service dogs to help individuals with autism, click here. You may also enjoy “Our Special Dog for Our Special Boy,” by Autism Speaks staffer Michele Arbogast.