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 Find her on Twitter at @maiasz. You can also continue the discussion on TIME Healthland’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIMEHealthland.