The pets act as a social lubricant serving to increase social interaction when pets are around. Children with pets also demonstrate an increased assertiveness.
“Kids with autism don’t always readily engage with others,” said Dr. Gretchen Carlisle, research fellow in the MU College of Veterinary Medicine’s Research Center for Human-Animal Interaction (ReCHAI), “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.”
The study participants consists of 70 families with children ranging in age from 8 to 18 years. Nearly 70% of the families had dogs and around 50% had cats. Smaller proportions also had other pets, including farm animals, reptiles, rodents, rabbits, fish, a bird and even a spider.
The study findings suggest that those who lived with dogs appeared to have greater social skills. The longer the children had lived with a dog at home, the better their social skills.
“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, said Dr. Carlisle.” “These kinds of social skills typically are difficult for kids with autism,” she said, “but this study showed children’s assertiveness was greater if they lived with a pet.”
Commenting on the results of the study Dr. Carlisle specified that not only dogs provided a positive benefit. “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.”
The Social Skills and Attachment to Dogs of Children with Autism Spectrum Disorder, Gretchen K. Carlisle, Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, doi:10.1007/s10803-014-2267-7, published online 12 October 2014, abstract.