KIDS
January 13, 2015

Family Pets Help ASD Kids Learn Social Skills

Cats, dogs and other pets give children with autism a way to learn how to deal with others and assert themselves.

Children with autism spectrum disorders often find it hard to interact with others. But they can become more assertive and develop the sorts of social skills that make interactions easier if they have a pet in the family.

It's been known for some time that service dogs specially trained to aid children with autism spectrum disorders (ASD) can improve life both for the children and for their parents. But there has been much less information on the role family pets with no special training can play.

A new study finds that when ASD children live with family pets, they often have an easier time interacting with other children.

Though parents may assume having dogs are best to help their children, my data show greater social skills for children with autism who live in homes with any type of pet.

“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,” Gretchen Carlisle, the study's lead author and a research fellow at the Missouri University College of Veterinary Medicine, said in a statement.

Children who had any kind of pet in the home were more likely to introduce themselves, ask for information or respond to others' 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,” she added.

Seventy families with children who had autism spectrum disorders took part in the study. The children ranged in age from 8 to 18.

The longer a family lived with the dog, the better a child's social skills. The children tended to report stronger attachments to smaller dogs.

Almost 70% of the families in the study had dogs, and about half had cats. But there was a long list of other pets, including fish, farm animals, rodents, rabbits, reptiles, a bird and even a spider. Having any kind of family pet helped.

“Dogs are good for some kids with autism but might not be the best option for every child,” says Carlisle. “Kids with autism are highly individual and unique… Though parents may assume having dogs are best to help their children, my data show greater social skills for children with autism who live in homes with any type of pet.”

The study is published in the Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders.

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