Pets May Trigger Improvement in Social Skills in Children with Autism

Child and Pet

Story at-a-glance -

  • A recently published French study points to the benefit of pets on the prosocial behavior of children with autism.
  • Autistic children whose families acquired a pet when the kids were 4 to 5 years old showed dramatic improvement in their ability to share and comfort others.
  • In terms of prosocial behaviors, children who had pets in the home from birth were indistinguishable from children without pets, leading researchers to conclude the arrival of a pet – not the mere presence of a pet -- has the potential to trigger improvement in certain social behaviors.
  • Careful research, planning and preparation are needed to select the right pet and bring him safely and successfully into a family with an autistic child.

By Dr. Becker

One of the characteristics of autism is social impairment, or the inability to have normal social interactions with other people. This is especially apparent when it comes to “prosocial” behavior, which is voluntary conduct that benefits other people or society as a whole. Examples of prosocial behaviors are cooperating, helping, sharing, donating, and volunteering.

There are a number of therapies, including animal-assisted therapies, used to help children with autism improve their ability to communicate and interact socially. In order to scientifically evaluate the impact of having a pet on the prosocial behaviors of autistic children, a study was conducted at the Hospital Research Center of Brest in France.

Study Evaluates the Benefit of Pets to Children with Autism

The study involved two groups of 12 children and two groups of 8. Study 1 involved the two groups of 12, where one group had a pet arrive in their lives after age 5, and the other group had no pet. Study 2 involved the two groups of 8, one group with pets and the second group with no pets.

The pets were mostly dogs and cats, with one rabbit and one hamster in the group.

The social impairment of the children was assessed twice during the study based on the 36-item Autism Diagnostic Interview-Revised (ADI-R) and a parental questionnaire. The results showed that 2 of the 36 measures improved in children between the ages of 4 and 5 and the time of assessment in the study 1 pet arrival group. The two improved measures were “offering to share” and “offering comfort,” both of which are prosocial behaviors.

The interactions between autistic children and their pets were reported as more frequent and of higher quality when the pets arrived a bit later in the child’s life rather than in situations where they were present from birth.

The kids in the other three groups – the children without pets and those who were around pets from birth – had no significant changes in any item on the ADI-R.

The researchers believe this is the first study showing an association between pet arrival and changes in prosocial behaviors in children with autism.

Conclusion: Arrival of a Pet Improves Prosocial Behaviors

The French study seems to indicate it’s not the presence of a pet, but when the pet is introduced that makes the difference. Autistic children who grew up with pets from birth were indistinguishable from kids without pets.

The study authors theorize that children may view a pet that has been there all along as simply part of their environment. Or it could be the pet is already bonded to another family member by the time the child arrives.

Youngsters who lived in a household that acquired a pet when they (the kids) were 4 to 5 years of age, on the other hand, showed dramatic improvement in their ability to 1) share with others and 2) comfort people who were upset. These changes were still obvious years later – the average age of the kids in the study was 10.

The researchers think perhaps the arrival of a pet can make for a more cohesive family unit, increasing the interaction among members of the household. Observing other people relate with a creature that is less complex than a human might give autistic children additional insight into social interactions.

The ability to share and provide comfort means that the ability to recognize and empathize with the wants and needs of others is also present.

One of the fundamental characteristics of people with autism is a lack of awareness of others’ thoughts, feelings and intentions. So improvement in prosocial behaviors means improvement in one of the key features of autism. And since changes in the study children’s behavior were not associated with IQ scores, it points to the potential for all autistic children, regardless of the severity of their condition, to benefit in the same way.

Providing an Optimal Environment for Both Child and Pet

Certainly adding a pet to a family with an autistic child has the potential to provide enormous benefits for everyone involved, whether you choose a shelter pet, an autism service dog, or some other animal. However, careful research, planning and preparation are needed to select the right pet and bring him safely and successfully into a family with an autistic child.

The goal should be to provide not only help for the child, but also a safe, loving forever home for the animal.

Since even children without autism often unintentionally cause harm or stress to family pets, endangering themselves in the process, it’s especially important for parents of an autistic child to “hope for the best, but prepare for the worst.”

Here is a link to a recent study published in the journal Research in Autism Spectrum Disorders titled “Behavioral intervention for domestic pet mistreatment in a young child with autism.” (The link takes you to an abstract. You can also buy the full article if you’re interested in reading it.)

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