Pets Can Help Autistic Children Learn to Share and Comfort Others

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Some autistic people report feeling more strongly connected to animals than to other people, but a new study suggests that introducing companion animals to autistic children at the right time in life may help with human bonding, too.

French researchers studied 40 children with autism and their families, examining whether the family had a pet and, if so, when the animal was acquired, and whether the presence or absence of a pet had any influence on the autistic child’s ability to bond. Most households with pets had either dogs or cats, but one family kept a rabbit, and another a hamster.

(MORE: Study: Why Dogs and Cats Make Babies Healthier)

It appeared that having a pet at all didn’t matter as much as when the pet was introduced to the home. Autistic children who grew up with a pet from birth appeared to be no different from those living in households without pets, but children who received a pet at age 4 or 5 showed major improvement in two social skills that are not only difficult for autistic people, but are also critical in sustaining human relationships: sharing with others and comforting people in distress.

Autistic children who received a pet when they were around kindergarten age showed gains in both behaviors, though there was no improvement in other areas, and the changes were still measurable several years later: the average age of the children in the study was 10.

The ability to share and to give comfort to those in need rely on the separate ability to recognize the desires and emotions of others and to empathize with them. A fundamental problem that characterizes autism is difficulty in understanding other people’s thoughts, feelings and intentions — known as “mind reading” or “theory of mind” — so improvement in these prosocial behaviors means that children are improving on one of the key aspects of the condition. Moreover, these changes were not correlated with IQ scores, meaning that all autistic children, regardless of the severity of their symptoms, could potentially show the same benefits.

(MORE: Study: Pets Give Us the Same Warm Fuzzies that Friends Do)

It is not clear why introducing a pet into the family later was more effective than always having one around. The authors suggest that children may simply perceive pre-existing pets as part of the background, or that the pets may already be more strongly bonded with other family members by the time the child enters the household. Another possibility, the authors write, is that the “arrival of a pet strengthens the cohesion of the family and increases the levels of interaction between their members.” Seeing other people respond to the pet — and having interactions with a creature that isn’t as socially complicated as a human — could give autistic children new insight into previously mystifying exchanges of social information.

The study was not a controlled trial, so it doesn’t eliminate the possibility that families who introduce pets to their children at age 4 or 5 are somehow different from those who don’t in ways that were not measured by the study. However, the specificity of the behavioral changes suggest otherwise. Because the study was also small, it was unable to explore questions like whether one type of pet may be more helpful than another.

(MORE: How ‘Bring Your Dog to Work’ Days Could Lower Stress)

The research adds to the growing evidence suggesting that pets can improve both mental and physical health for all people; previous data suggest that animal companions reduce stress, improve mood and may even prevent the development of some allergies if introduced in childhood. However, simply having a pet around isn’t enough to reap psychological benefits: you must love and connect with the animal, or else, not surprisingly, it won’t relieve your stress or lift your mood.

The study was published in PLoS ONE.

MORE: Study: Living with Pets May Protect Infants from Allergies

Maia Szalavitz is a health writer for TIME.com. Find her on Twitter at @maiasz. You can also continue the discussion on TIME Healthland’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIMEHealthland.

6 comments
Tom Froehlich
Tom Froehlich

Great article!  I've witnessed this strong connection between children with special needs and animals through visits to local schools with my dog, Charley.  Charley has been trained as a therapy dog, but he seems to know what to do by instinct anyway.  I highly recommend 

www.golden-dogs.org if you are interested in learning more about training your own dog.  Here's a little about my own experience with Charley: 

http://blog.froehlichfinancial...

HanDan
HanDan

As much as this headline caught my attention and as much as the author is conveying information, I'm struggling to read this article for one simple reason.  Every time I come across "autistic children" or "autistic people," I feel as though I've hit a mental speed bump.  I understand there's probably a word count, but may I encourage TIME and its staff to introduce People First language, thus saying "children with autism," rather than identifying them solely through one attribute of their life?

Talendria
Talendria

It should be standard protocol for every parent to introduce a family pet when a child is mature enough to behave appropriately.  For most kids, that's kindergarten, but for others it might be first or second grade.  Pets teach empathy and discipline, and those skills are lacking in most kids, autistic or not.  It doesn't have to be a mammal, either.  Fish, birds, and reptiles teach the same skills.  But it's not enough just to have the pet.  The child has to be coached extensively on how to take care of the pet and has to be held responsible for its welfare.

Patty Dobbs Gross
Patty Dobbs Gross

My book, THE GOLDEN BRIDGE: A Guide to Assistance Dogs for Children Challenged by Autism or Other Related Disabilities, can help to better understand this emerging field that holds so much promise for children on the autism spectrum.

I think the most interesting thing about autism assistance dogs is how they help to soften typically developing people's fear of differences to allow them to relate to the child on the other end of the leash when they see an autism assistance dog team in public (North Star dogs wear vests that invite this attention with gold embroidered lettering that reads, "Please Ask to Pet Me.") 

Research suggests that autism assistance dogs help their children the most by improving social skills, including staying on task conversationally. The dogs they are partnered with tend to keep them on the same social page as everyone in the room, which is important as pragmatic language can't develop in a vacuum... 

Here's a video of North Star teams that we've put into play in our last decade of incorporation (it was produced by my son Danny, who is on the autism spectrum and currently a graduate student at USC's School of Cinematic Arts! It's a new day for people with autism, as society finally begins to appreciate their differences...)

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v... 

Patty Dobbs Gross

Executive Director

North Star Foundation

20 Deerfield Lane

Storrs, Ct 06268

www.NorthStarDogs.com

northstarfoundation@charter.net

We help children find their way.

MeropePavlides
MeropePavlides

This study supports the anecdotal evidence seen by those working with service and therapy animals for many years.  Families should not, however, rush out to obtain a pet for their child with autism without careful consideration of all factors involved. "Animal-Assisted Interventions for Individuals with Autism" 

http://www.amazon.com/Animal-a... is a good starting point for thinking about whether a pet, service animal, or animal therapy is right for your child and family.

Merope Pavlides, Editor

Autism After 16

www.autismafter16.com

MrKnowItAll58
MrKnowItAll58

Animals helping people with Autism, PTSD, and other conditions!  This is earth shattering, life changing news!  We have been doing this, in our work since 1968!  It is about time that others have seen the benefit.  NOW, fix the housing laws that permit discrimination when these animals are used!  Maybe in the next forty years we can solve another problem or two!