Science shows that interacting with animals may have big health benefits. Pets can help lower blood pressure and cholesterol, increase the amount of exercise people get and decrease stress. Researchers find that animals also may significantly increase positive social behaviors in children who have an autism spectrum disorder.
A study published in the Journal of Pediatric Nursing, surveyed parents of children who had autism about the children’s interactions with dogs. Nearly two thirds of the families owned a dog. Of these, 94 percent said their child bonded strongly with the pet. Even in families without dogs, 7 in 10 parents said their child enjoyed interacting with dogs.
The study lends support to the idea that interacting with a pet benefits many children with autism. However, the author Dr. Gretchen Carlisle, a research fellow with the Research Center for Human-Animal Interaction at the University of Missouri College of Veterinary Medicine emphasizes the need to consider each child’s sensitivities as well as family dynamics in carefully considering pet ownership.
Another study, published in PLOS ONE, let a classroom of autistic students play with two guinea pigs for about ten minutes. Compared with another group who played with toys for ten minutes, the kids who played with animals seemed to be more social, interact with their peers more and showed fewer negative behaviors.
The Huffington Post spoke with one of the researchers on the study:
"Including an animal in children's playtime or home activities may be an effective way to encourage socialization with other children as well as adults."
"Children with autism engaged in 55 percent more social behaviors when they were with the animals, compared to toys," said O'Haire, who added that the amount they smiled more than doubled.
Per the Disability Scoop, it is unclear exactly why kids with autism saw such benefits from the guinea pigs, but researchers suggested that it may be that the presence of the animals made the environment less stressful for them.
Pets are not for everyone and need careful consideration
Experts say that parents who have thought about getting a pet or who have noticed that their child seems to enjoy being in the presence of animals might want to consider it. But getting a child with autism a pet will not magically improve their symptoms, and pets are not for everyone.
PLOS ONE: “Social Behaviors Increase in Children with Autism in the Presence of Animals Compared to Toys.”
PEDIATRIC NURSING: Pet dog ownership decisions for parents of children with autism spectrum disorder