Autistic children have greater social interaction thanks to their pets

Gretchen Carlisle’s study found that children with autism had a closer bond with smaller dogs than they did with larger ones.

If you live with dogs and cats, you are more social than people without pets — this is especially true for children on the autism spectrum.

“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,” Gretchen Carlisle, research fellow at the Research Center for Human-Animal Interaction (ReCHAI) in the University of Missouri College of Veterinary Medicine, tells Science Daily.

“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,” she says. “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.”

Carlisle’s research observed children in social situations — and even in classrooms — were pets were present. She found when a pet was present, a child was more likely to engage in conversation. This applied to children with autism.

“When children with disabilities take their service dogs out in public, other kids stop and engage,” Carlisle says. “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.”

Her research found children with autism bonded strongly with small dogs as opposed to larger ones. Parents of autistic children noted they also bonded to other pets such as cats and rabbits.

For her study, Carlisle surveyed 70 families with children suffering from autism between age 8 and 18; Approximately 70 percent of the families that participated had dogs.

“Dogs are good for some kids with autism, but might not be the best option for every child,” Carlisle says. “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.”

Sources: Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, Science Daily