Could adding a new furry family member aid social interactions in autistic children? A recent study indicates a big yes. The CDC has admitted that 1 in 88 children have or will have some type of autism diagnosis - a 10-fold increase in the last 40 years.
A PLOS One study published in late February found that animals, versus toys only, provide a profound social medium in helping autistic children interact with peers.
Taking groups involving 1 ASD child, 2 typically developing children, 2 guinea pigs each and comparing play time with the guinea pigs versus with toys showed stunning results. ASD kids took more social initiative with more eye and tactile contact. There was more smiling and laughing and less self-focused and negative effects with animals around compared to toys.
What's more, animals drew other children to the autistic ones, increasing the positive social response even more.
Researchers concluded that animal presence can significantly increase positive social behaviors for children with autism. Another recent, smaller study showed similar results, concluding that having a pet at home might assist the development of some pro-social behaviors in autistic children.
"Pet therapy" has already had a tremendously positive effect in a variety of settings like nursing homes, hospitals, mental institutions, and prisons, as well as aiding people with anxiety and PTSD. Even ABC news recently reported the health effects of children raised around farm animals. The positive effect of a pet's unconditional love, and the responsibility of caring for them have been proven therapeutic in an extremely wide variety of cases. Why not apply it to autism?
If you know a child with autism, you may have encountered some of the difficulties they face with social interaction. Without trying to be scientific, many of them have problems interacting in social environments, and have a tendency to seek solitude, rather than engaging in the complexities of human social dynamics. Some of them struggle with anxiety and intense outbursts. As writer and public speaker James Williams (who also has high-functioning autism) puts it - "...it's not that autistic people are inherently antisocial. It is that they are social in their own way."
How pets help autistic individuals bridge the gap between their own social perceptions and those of their neurotypical peers was one of the concepts explored and is finally getting more exposure.
In autism, ages 4-5 is considered the "key age" because it is during this time that the severity of autism has the most effect on development. And in any household, what better age to begin involving children in the responsibility of caring for another creature and, in turn, caring for others?
It doesn't take a science degree to appreciate the relationship people have with their pets, which are often treated just like family members. What seems to make this relationship even more important with autistic children, is the animals' non-verbal communication. Pets demonstrate their needs and unconditional affection.
The effect of pets helping children with autism is somewhat of a newly recognized branch of study, but for parents of autistic children, seeing positive interactions with their child's friends would probably trump any inconclusive scientific results.
Here is a short interview last fall with Kari Dunn Buron, who wrote a book about animals helping children with autism. Her work with dogs and autistic children found that dogs had a calming effect on anxiety, explosive behavior, and social isolation:
PLOS is a non-profit organization, whose online publication at plosone.org provides peer review and publication to worldwide media for study authors.
Read other articles by Heather Callaghan
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