Children with autism have better social skills when they're allowed to live with a pet, research has revealed, and that doesn't just mean making the - often unrealistically huge - investment of getting a dog or a cat. If a child can bond with it, and yes, in some cases that includes creepy crawlies, it can have a significant effect on how a child with autism relates to the world around him or her.
A scientist at the Research Centre for Human-Animal Interaction (ReCHAI) in the University of Missouri College of Veterinary Medicine in the US worked with 70 families who had children with autism to see how the presence of pets in their lives affected their social skills.
People love their dogs, that much is obvious. In 2006, a Pew Research Centre study of over 3,000 adults found that when asked about their close relationships, 94 percent included dogs, 87 percent included mothers, 84 percent included cats and 74 percent included fathers. According to the study, 85 percent of dog owners consider their pets to be a part of the family.
These animals also have a proven affect on children with autism, who often struggle to relate to other people. The Australian Guide Dogs association even runs its own Autism Assistance Dog Program.
But not everyone can afford to look after a dog, so what about something smaller and more manageable?
"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," said researcher Gretchen Carlisle in a press release. "More significantly, however, the data revealed that children with any kind of pet in the home reported being more likely to engage in behaviours 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 describes pets as "social lubricants" - when you have one in the classroom, children are more likely to engage with one another around it.
Think about when you're standing around at a party and you don't know anyone, and then suddenly a cat walks by. You start giving it scratches, and then somebody else, who also doesn't know anybody, comes over to give it scritches too. You make a crack about its lazy eye, and suddenly you're engaging with each other. Sure, that's a pretty crude example, but many of us have had a similar experience.
"When children with disabilities take their service dogs out in public, other kids stop and engage," says Carlisle. "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."
Carlisle surveyed 70 families that had at least one child with autism between the ages of eight and 18, and who were patients of the University of Missouri Thompson Centre for Autism and Neurodevelopmental Disorders. She found that 67 percent of them had dogs, and about 50 percent of them had cats. Less common types included fish, rabbits, mice, rats, reptiles, birds, and farm animals. One (brave) kid even had a pet spider.
Publishing in the Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, she found that the autistic children who lived with dogs had greater mean scores for social skills - measured using a standardised assessment called the Social Skills Improvement System Rating Scale - than those who didn't. Individual skills tested included communication skills, capacity to cooperate, assertiveness, taking responsibility, having empathy for others, capacity for self-control, and being able to engage with others. Carlisle found that those with any kind of pet had a significantly greater capacity for assertiveness than those who had none.
The results also showed that their social skills grew stronger the longer their family had owned a dog, and if they got a dog at an older age, they rated their relationship with it as weaker than kids who got a dog when they were younger. And you don't need a big, lumbering, cuddly labrador - the children in Carlisle's study reported the strongest attachments to smaller dogs.
"Finding children with autism to be more strongly bonded to smaller dogs, and parents reporting strong attachments between their children and other pets, such as rabbits or cats, serves as evidence that other types of pets could benefit children with autism as well," she said in the press release.
Interestingly, while the average rate of pet ownership among families in the US is 66 percent, 81 percent of the families in this study had some kind of pet, which suggests that they're already well aware of how valuable these animals can be for children with autism. It's a small sample size, sure, and surveying more families would of course be valuable, but it's great to know that an animal of any kind can make a difference.
"Dogs are good for some kids with autism but might not be the best option for every child," Carlisle said. "Kids with autism are highly individual and unique, so some other animals may provide just as much benefit as dogs. 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."