There is a growing body of evidence to show that kids with autism can benefit significantly from pet therapy. Although there have thus far been few studies conducted on children, two recent studies have shown promising results.
A study out of The University of Queensland in Australia showed that interacting with pets promoted socialization amongst autistic kids. 99 children between the ages of 5 and 13 were studied, some with autism and some without. They were given toys or guinea pigs to play with in the study. The results showed that the autistic kids were much more likely to look at and engage with their peers when playing with the pet rather than toys. They were also more open to their peers approaching them and less likely to be upset if they did.
In all, the children with autism engaged in 55% more social behaviors when they were interacting with the animals rather than the toys. Children with autism often struggle with social interaction and behaviors, they are also prone to suffer more from stress and anxiety. The finding that pets can bring a smile to the faces of autistic children and encourage social interaction is a significant step in therapy for the condition.
The Queensland findings have been backed by a separate study conducted by The National Institute of Health in Rome, Italy. This study looked at the use of trained dogs with autistic children and it was shown that the dogs could act as ‘social catalysts’. Senior researcher Francesca Cirulli and her team looked at a round up of studies which involved therapy dogs or trained service dogs. While they caution that it is too early to draw certain conclusions, the results of the studies bring positive news.
As with the Queensland study, autistic kids who interacted with the dogs became more talkative and socially engaged during therapy sessions where a dog was present. They also tended to be less aggressive and smile more when a dog was included in the session.
Some studies have looked at service dogs which live with families to help keep autistic children safe. This includes things such as tethering the child to the dog when the family goes out to prevent them from running off and getting hurt. These have proven to be helpful for the socialization of the child and as a relief to families who can find themselves becoming socially isolated out of fear for keeping the child safe. Parents with service dogs have also reported improvements in their child’s behavior since getting the dog, with fewer tantrums and better attention from the child. In these ways service dogs are being shown to benefit the whole family.
Where further studies are needed are in terms of who might benefit the most from pet therapy. There is a wide spectrum of autism disorders with some more severe than others. There also needs to be more studies into pets who have been trained to be around autistic children versus everyday pets.
All in all though, the signs are promising that if you have an autistic child, they just may benefit from interaction with a pet.