Pets Can Increase Social Skills in Children with Autism

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Living with any kind of pet can help children with autism develop social skills, according to new research from the University of Missouri.

Previous reports had shown that dogs could increase social skills in children with autism, but this new study is the first to show that living with any kind of pet can provide these benefits.

Gretchen Carlisle, PhD, a research fellow at Missouri's College of Veterinary Medicine's Research Center for Human-Animal Interaction, and colleagues conducted surveys from the parents of 70 children with autism aged eight to 18 years. Of these families, approximately 70% had dogs, 50% had cats, and a smaller number had other pets that included farm animals, reptiles, rodents, rabbits, fish, birds, and spiders. The survey results were compared with assessments of the children’s social skills.

Children who lived with pets had stronger social skills than those who didn’t have pets, and the longer they had lived with the pet, the better their social skills were, the researchers reported in the Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders. Living with dogs had the greatest benefit for the children’s social skills, but any kind of pet provided a benefit over not having a pet.

The data showed that children who lived with a pet were more likely to engage in social behaviors like introducing themselves or answering people’s questions, behaviors that are usually difficult for children with autism.

Pets Increase Social Skills in Children with Autism
Pets Increase Social Skills in Children with Autism

Previous studies show that pets encourage social interaction, and there have been reports of dogs helping children with autism develop their social skills. But before this new study, from a researcher the University of Missouri (MU), nobody had shown this might also true of other types of pet.

Gretchen Carlisle, PhD, a research fellow in the MU College of Veterinary Medicine's Research Center for Human-Animal Interaction, says when pets are present in the home, the classroom, or other social setting, children tend to interact and talk to each other more.

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