Humans began to domesticate animals hundreds of years ago to help out with work around the house like farming, herding, exterminating, etc. While they’re still used for these reasons today, pets are now mainly used for companionship. However, recent research suggests the therapeutic effect pets and animals can have on people.
Animal therapy has been around since the 1700s and has become quite popular since. It’s used for patients of all ages with a variety of health conditions like cancer, epilepsy, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorder. Interacting with animals has been shown to help reduce stress, lower blood pressure and cholesterol, and even encourage more physical activity. Now, experts are researching the impact of pets on children with autism/ASD.
Socializing is commonly the biggest challenge for children with autism. This can make it difficult to participate with others their age, potentially leading to isolation, rejection, bullying, and other stressful interactions.
New research is finding that the children with autism, who have a pet at home, have much more advanced social skills and are more assertive and communicative than those who do not have a pet at home. Previous studies show how dogs can help children with autism. When compared to other children with autism who do not have dogs, the ones with dogs seem to have greater social skills. However, it’s not just dogs that can make a difference.
Gretchen Carlisle, a research fellow at the Research Center for Human-Animal Interaction at the Missouri University College of Veterinary Medicine, surveyed 70 families who had children with autism. The study “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. These kinds of social skills typically are difficult for kids with autism, but this study showed children’s assertiveness was greater if they lived with a pet.”
Carlisle mentions that pets are like social lubricants in how they are conversation starters. When a child takes their service dog out in public, other kids are inclined to stop and engage. Carlisle says that “Kids with autism don’t always readily engage with others, 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.”
Marguerite O”Haire, a PhD candidate at The University of Queensland, Australia, conducted another similar study. This observed 99 children, some with autism and some without, as they played with toys or interacted with 2 guinea pigs, the classroom pets. When the children with autism were with the guinea pigs, they were more likely to talk, smile, laugh, and look at their peers, and were less likely to frown, cry, or whine than those who were playing with toys. The classroom can be a stressful and overwhelming environment, for anyone but especially for children with autism/ASD because of social challenges and peer victimization. If an animal can reduce a child’s stress or even artificially change their perception of the classroom, then that child may feel more open to socializing.
Dogs often get all the credit when referring to the therapeuitic benefits of pets, but Carlisle mentions that dog ownership may not be right for everyone. Having a dog involves a lot of time, patience, and care, and could be overwhelming for some children with autism. Remember every child is different. So don’t forget about cats, rabbits, fish, reptiles, and rodents!