Debbie Nicholson

New study suggests getting a pet may help improve social skills

French researchers from the Centre Hospitalier Regional Universitaire de Brest strengthens what many clinicians and parents have known for years that pets help children with autism. This new study provides evidence that bringing a pet home to a child with autism may help the child develop improved social behaviors.

View slideshow: Dog breeds for autistic children

According to researchers animal therapies are widely used but their relevant benefits have never been scientifically evaluated until now. Researchers evaluated the association between the presence of arrival of pets in the families with an individual with autism and the changes in his or her prosocial behaviors.

For the study 260 individuals who met the DSM-IV criteria for autistic disorders were involved in two separate analyses.

In the first analyses researchers had matched 12 individuals who did not have a family pet before the ages four or five but did get a pet after the age of five, by age, sex, language ability and epilepsy history to 12 individuals who never had a family pet. At the time of assessment the average age was 10.8 with a range of seven to fifteen.

For the second analyses researchers matched eight individuals who had a family pet since birth with eight individuals who never had a family pet. At the time of assessment the average age was 11.1 with a range of six to sixteen.

The pets in the study had included dogs, cats, one hamster and one rabbit.

All the participants were evaluated with 36-item Autism Diagnostic Interview-Revised at the age of four or five and then again at some point after five. The tool measures four main domains -- reciprocal social interactions, verbal and nonverbal communication, and stereotyped behaviors and restricted interests. Parents also filled out a questionnaire about the relationship between their child and the pet.

Out of the 36 measures participants who had gotten a family pet after the child was born had scored higher in two categories; “ offering to share” and “offering to comfort”, after having the pet for a couple of years.

The authors had written in their conclusion; “This study reveals that in individuals with autism, pet arrival in the family setting may bring about changes in specific aspects of their socio-emotional development. It suggests the improvement of some prosocial behaviors in such individuals under certain circumstances. Thus, it offers a “window of opportunity” to future longitudinal developmental studies to further confirm these findings and explain their underlying mechanisms. Given the current state of knowledge, we suggest further research exploring our hypothesis on the association between the arrival of a new pet and the change in a family dynamic to evaluate the impact of another child’s arrival.”

Dr. Alycia Halladay, PhD, director of environmental research at Autism Speaks stated "We hear from parents a lot that having a pet or interacting with an animal really helps their child's social behavior, but there hasn't been a study so far that has looked at that scientifically," according to reports in Health Day. "This offers some intriguing evidence to confirm what parents have been saying."

Dr. Halladay was not involved in this study which is published online August 1, in the journal PLoS ONE.

Puppy Training Steps notes that using dogs for autism therapy is relatively new (10 – 15 years) and is an evolving field. Although an assistance dog is not for everyone, there is so much potential for enriching the lives of those who deal with this challenging disorder on a daily basis.

To find out about these amazing dogs you can view the following sites:

Puppy Steps Training

Paws 4 Autism

Autism Service Dogs of America

4 Paws for Ability