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Pets and Autism: Helping to Improve Social Skills

One of the great joys shared by many families with children is working together to raise the family pet. As many parents will attest, dogs and cats not only help to bring a family together and provide a furry partner for children to play with, but also help young children become more responsible and grow self-esteem by walking and feeding the pet.


According to new research conducted by the University of Missouri, pets—and dogs in particular—might prove to be even more beneficial for children with autism by serving as a “social lubricant” and helping them to develop assertiveness and self-confidence when interacting with other children. The researchers surveyed 70 families with autistic children between the ages of eight and 18, all of whom were patients at the MU Thompson Center for Autism and Neurodevelopmental Disorders. Nearly 70 percent of the participating families had dogs, half had cats, and some owned other pets including fish, rodents, rabbits, reptiles and birds.


As the study’s lead researcher, Gretchen Carlisle, observed over the course of the survey was that the presence of pets tended to increase the likelihood of a child with autism engaging in social interaction. While previous studies have focused primarily on dogs as being the best bet for helping to encourage the development of children with autism, Carlisle’s team believes that this holds true for any pet.


According to a statement issued by Carlisle, “When I compared the social skills of children with autism who lived with dogs to those who did not, the children with dogs appeared to have greater 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. 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.”


Despite her claims that any pet could provide these benefits, Carlisle did acknowledge that the strongest attachment was formed between children and small dogs, further confirming what many therapists and researchers have long claimed; mainly that dogs serve the greatest benefit to children with autism.


As such, there exist foundations that train autism assistance dogs to help children with autism to develop social skills and serve as something of a backup in overwhelming situations. Unlike a guide dog that helps with physical tasks, an autism assistance dog is there more for emotional support. By simply being there, a solid, sound and reassuring companion can help ease sensory overload, which is a common challenge for those with autism.


Nonetheless, what Carlisle and her team have achieved is to disprove the commonly held belief that dogs are the only choice of a pet for children with autism. After all, a dog might not always be the best fit for certain children and a household that does have a pet is far more likely to help a child in successfully developing social skills. So whether you’re a dog, cat, or bird person, Carlisle’s research offers concrete evidence that a pet is a good bet for a family that has a child with autism.