Children with autism will have stronger social skills and are more assertive if they have any kind of pet living in their home, says a study by the University of Missouri – Columbia. The study was announced on Dec. 30, 2014 and was published as The Social Skills and Attachment to Dogs of Children with Autism Spectrum Disorder in the “Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders.” Previous research has shown that pets can be a catalyst for children with autism to interact with other people.
“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,” said Gretchen Carlisle, a research fellow at the Research Center for Human-Animal Interaction at the MU College of Veterinary Medicine. “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.”
Children with autism talk and interact with people more when pets are present. Pets are often “social lubricants” and Carlisle says this could explain the increased assertiveness shown by autistic kids who live in homes with pets. “When children with disabilities take their service dogs out in public, other kids stop and engage,” Carlisle said. “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.”
Researchers surveyed 70 families who had children with autism who ranged in age between the ages of eight and 18. The autistic children were patients at the MU Thompson Center for Autism and Neurodevelopmental Disorders. The patients were between the ages of eight and 18. Half of the families of the children owned cats, and nearly 70 percent owned dogs. Other families owned farm animals, rabbits, rodents, reptiles, a spider, and a bird.
The children in the study reported that the strongest attachments were to smaller dogs. The children’s social skills increased over time with a dog in the home. While pets can be beneficial, they may not benefit everyone. Some children may need a quiet pet.
“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 greater social skills for children with autism who live in homes with any type of pet.”