Children with autism are more likely to have strong social skills when there’s a pet in the home, according to a survey of families at an Autism Speaks Autism Treatment Network (ATN) center in Missouri.
"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 study author Gretchen Carlisle. "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."
The study follows up on Dr. Carlisle’s previous research at the University of Missouri’s Research Center for Human-Animal Interaction. The new study involved 70 children, ages 8 to 18, receiving care at the Thompson Center for Autism and Neurodevelopmental Disorders, in Columbia. The Thompson Center is one of 14 Autism Speaks ATN sites across North America. (Learn more about how the ATN is pioneering comprehensive medical care for children and adolescents affected by autism here.)
More than half the families had dogs, and nearly half had cats. Other pets included fish, farm animals, rodents, rabbits, reptiles, a bird and even one spider.
“Pets may serve as social catalysts,” comments behavior analyst Kara Reagon, Autism Speaks associate director of dissemination science. “When pets are present in social settings or a classroom, individuals with autism may initiateand engage more with others.”
A growing body of research suggests that this dynamic may be helpful for children with autism and could account for increased social interaction when the children are living in a home with pets. However, further research is needed to determine whether pet ownership is truly responsible for the increased social skills associated with it, Dr. Reagon notes. For instance, none of the children in the new study had intellectual disability, which frequently co-occurs with autism. Along these lines, it may be more likely that families of children severely disabled by autism are less likely to own pets than are families of children with stronger abilities.
In addition, Dr. Reagon emphasizes the importance of carefully considering the unique needs and capacities of each individual and family against the long-term responsibilities and time demands of pet ownership and care.
Also see this related content:
* Our Special Dog for Our Special Boy, a blog by Autism Speaks staffer Michele Arbogast.
To learn more about programs that train service dogs to help individuals with autism, click here.