Kids like animals. Put a pet animal in a classroom or similar social setting and most children will gravitate to the animal. A research scientist at the University of Missouri (MU) refers to pets as “social lubricants,” so effective that even autistic children develop improved social skills when there’s a pet in the family.
Gretchen Carlisle, of the MU College of Veterinary Medicine’s Research Center for Human-Animal Interaction, was aware of previous studies that demonstrated the boost a pet dog gives to children diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder (ASD, autism) but she was curious about the effects of other kinds of family pet.
Dogs are perfect additions to some families but, for many reasons, they aren’t the right fit for all families. Autism is such a complex condition that not even all dogs are right for all autistic children. Carlisle turned to 70 families with autistic children to learn about the pets in their households.
All the children in Carlisle’s survey were between 8 and 18 years of age and were under treatment at the MU Thompson Center for Autism and Neurodevelopmental Disorders. Her survey revealed:
- 70% of the families had pet dogs
- Approximately 50% had cats
- Other family pets included fish, rabbits, rodents, and reptiles
- Some families considered their farm animals their pets
- One family had a pet bird
- Another had a pet spider
Carlisle finds that when children have bonded with a family pet they are more likely to bond with people and pets outside the home. They’re also more likely to engage in conversation when asked about their pet.
The longer the pet has been a part of the family, the stronger the bond, according to Carlisle’s findings. She also discovered that younger autistic children are more strongly attached to their pets than older ones. When speaking directly to the child with a pet dog (rather than to a parent), Carlisle found a stronger attachment to smaller dogs.
In addition to easier bonding with people outside the family and greater confidence in conversation, Carlisle’s survey revealed the autistic child with a family pet is more likely to:
- Introduce him/herself
- Ask questions
- Respond to the questions of others
“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,” said Carlisle.
“Dogs are good for some kids with autism but might not be the best option for every child,” according to Carlisle. Pet dogs get the most media attention but Carlisle urges parents to consider other pet animals that may be better suited to the individual child. Her study demonstrates “greater social skills for children with autism who live in homes with any type of pet.”
- Chew, Jesslyn. "Children with Autism Who Live With Pets Are More Assertive." News Bureau / University of Missouri. MU News Bureau, 30 Dec. 2014. Web. 4 Jan. 2015.
- "Assessing Shelter Dogs and Temperament Testing." Dog Tip: Assessing Shelter Dogs and Temperament Testing. Partnership for Animal Welfare (PAWS), n.d. Web. 4 Jan. 2015.