Animals may offer more than comfort for kids with autism, according to new research finding that pets can bring about physiological changes in those with the developmental disorder.

Children on the spectrum displayed a sharp drop in anxiety and social stress when playing with animals as compared to engaging in other activities whether independently or with their peers, the study found.

By contrast, typically-developing kids actually exhibited a rise in skin conductance levels — which were used to measure anxiety — when presented with animals, perhaps due to excitement, the researchers said in their findings published recently in the journal Developmental Psychobiology.

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“Previous studies suggest that in the presence of companion animals, children with autism spectrum disorders function better socially,” said James Griffin of the National Institutes of Health’s Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, which helped fund the new research. “This study provides physiological evidence that the proximity of animals eases the stress that children with autism may experience in social situations.”

For the study, researchers looked at 114 children ages 5 to 12, a third of whom had autism. All of the kids wore a device on their wrist to measure skin conductance, or the level of charge that passes through the skin. Readings from the device can suggest how a person is feeling since the pace of charge increases when people feel excited or anxious, for example.

Measurements were taken while the children read a book silently and again when the kids were asked to read aloud for two peers. Then, researchers monitored the children while they played during 10 minutes of free time and finally, during 10 minutes of supervised play with two guinea pigs.

Skin conductance levels for the children with autism were higher than for their typically-developing peers in every circumstance except when the guinea pigs were present, the study found.

Marguerite O’Haire, a researcher at Purdue University who led the study, said that while the findings are meaningful, she does not recommend that parents immediately acquire pets for their children with autism. Rather, she said the study suggests that animals may “play a part in interventions seeking to help children with autism develop their social skills.”

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