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Pets May Offer Big Gains For Kids With Autism

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For individuals with autism, bringing a new dog or cat into the household can lead to significant social improvements, a first-of-its-kind study finds.

Researchers reported Wednesday in the journal PLoS One that those with autism displayed improvements in two areas — “offering to share” and “offering comfort” — within a few years of welcoming a new animal into their lives.

Similar progress was not observed among study participants on the spectrum who lived with a pet since birth or those who never had a pet at all.

“This study reveals that in individuals with autism, pet arrival in the family setting may bring about changes in specific aspects of their socio-emotional development,” wrote the study’s lead author, Marine Grandgeorge of the Centre Hospitalier Régional Universitaire de Brest in France, and her colleagues. “To our knowledge, this is the first study showing an association between pet arrival and changes in prosocial behaviors.”

For the study, researchers compared individuals with autism who had dogs, cats or small animals like a hamster or rabbit in their home since birth to a control group made up of people with similar characteristics but who never lived with a pet.

They also looked at those on the spectrum who got a pet after age 5 as compared to individuals with autism without pets.

The 40 study participants were assessed using a test known as the Autism Diagnostic Interview-Revised, or ADI-R, that was conducted when they were ages 4 to 5 and then once more when the children were older.

Researchers also interviewed the individuals’ parents about the presence of any pets in their homes and, where animals were present, asked about the relationship between the person with autism and the pet.

While no change was seen for individuals without pets or those who had pets since birth, acquiring a new animal appeared to increase the likelihood of sharing and comforting parents or peers, two so-called prosocial behaviors.

The reason for the improvements is not entirely clear and more research is needed, the study authors said.

Interestingly, however, they indicated that children who acquired a new pet were much more likely to spend time petting or playing with their furry friend than those who had a pet since birth.

In about half of cases where a new pet came into the home, parents reported that they acquired the animal specifically for their child with autism, but whether or not that was the reason did not appear to influence the level of social progress that the individual achieved, researchers said.

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Comments (6 Responses)

  1. KA101 says:

    [Anecdata warning: the following comment is not based on rigorous study]

    Hmm. Interesting choice of words throughout the article, which might help explain some of its findings: preexisting pets are part of the home “landscape”. They exist and generally already have their support needs looked after. If the autie is then tasked to take over those needs, it’s an imposition.

    If, however, the autie is consulted and voluntarily supports the project, xe will probably want to help and take an interest in the new pet’s well-being. The effect can be greatly increased if the autie was involved in the selection process.

    I should know: I hand-picked Smoke at the shelter with parental support for the goal of “adopt a cat”. I cared rather a lot about her. She lived through junior-high, high school, undergrad, and died pretty much in my arms shortly after I graduated law school. :-(E>
    By comparison, all three family dogs either pre-existed or were obtained without consulting me: never really cared much for the first two and the third typically is content to leave me alone.

  2. msamericanpatriot says:

    What about horses? I am an autistic horse owner. I was originally leasing this horse and the one who I was leasing her from was going away to college. She gave me the horse. I couldnt be happier.

  3. fairlady68 says:

    This is so true…I let a beautiful calico stray into my life 15 years ago and made huge strides in my social skills, ability to empathize, be more outer-directed and just generally had a much better quality of life. When she passed away, I took in another kitty and if anything have enjoyed her even more than the first one! The cats really helped me get out of myself and away from some of my more bizarre special interests. Now everyone knows me as the woman who loves cats and somehow that is more acceptable than the woman who is crazy about the Kremlin or Cal Expo…

  4. Sarah says:

    I’m glad someone mentioned horses. Horses are GREAT for kids on the spectrum! My son has been involved in therapeutic riding for two years now. He rides a pony named Coco. He even has to help brush Coco and look her in the eye and thank her after his ride. My son also like bunnies. Something about their soft fur. Sometimes we go to the pet store where he likes to look at the bunnies. He even likes chickens- no idea why but in the past we’ve stopped at a chicken coop so he can watch them cluck around. Animals have a great therapeutic effect on our kids.

  5. Mary Sherman says:

    Knowing a family with 2 Autistic Children I can vouch that their dog mad a significant diffeence in the childrens lives, Animals do that iy seems for everyone, They are outstanding therapists

  6. Amy says:

    The question is whether all kinds of pets would be equally beneficial to kids with autism or whether there’s a certain preference when it comes to choosing the right pet for these children. For example, if I wanted to buy a dog for my little son I would definitely weigh all the options before deciding which dog breed to choose.

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