Pets Help Kids with Autism Socialize

Autism social behaviors were increased when a pet was present compared to having toys around

(RxWiki News) When walking the dog, it often seems easier to chat with strangers. Researchers thought animals might also help kids who had autism spectrum disorder (ASD) with their social skills.

A recent study looked at the way kids with ASD interacted with other kids when they were given toys and again when there were pets in the room.

Results showed that kids with ASD talked more and were more engaged when pets were present. When animals were in the room, kids with ASD also had more positive expressions, like smiling and laughing.

The authors concluded that pets may help kids with ASD have more positive social interactions.

"Ask a psychiatrist about ways to improve your child’s social skills."

The study, led by Marguerite E. O’Haire, doctoral candidate, with Virginia Slaughter, PhD, at the University of Queensland in Australia, enrolled 33 kids with ASD and 66 kids who were typically developing.

The kids were then divided into groups of three each comprised of one child with ASD and the other two who were typically developing. Each group had six play sessions that were 10 minutes long.

In three of the play sessions, the kids were given toys. In the other three sessions, two pet guinea pigs were placed in the play room.

Each play session was videotaped. An observer rated the behaviors of all the kids in the room. And the observer did not know which kids had ASD and which did not.

The observers looked for behaviors like talking, looking at another child’s face and making physical contact with another child. They also looked for expressions of mood, such as smiling, laughing, frowning and crying.

The observers noted how many times kids did these things and how much time they spent doing them during the play session. Then researchers looked at differences in behavior among the kids with ASD. They compared behaviors during the sessions with toys to the sessions with the guinea pigs.

The researchers found that when animals were present, ASD kids had more approach behaviors. That is, they talked more, touched more and spent more time looking other children in the face.

Kids with ASD also had more positive expressions, like smiling, and fewer negative expressions, like frowning, when the guinea pigs were in the room compared to having toys in the room.

The authors concluded, “These results suggest that the presence of an animal can significantly increase positive social behaviors among children with ASD.”

This study was published February 27 in PloS One. The study was funded by the Thomas Meloy Foundation and the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health & Human Development.  The authors declare no competing interests.

Review Date: 
February 25, 2013