Can Pets Help Boost Social Skills for Kids With Autism?

Study finds slight evidence that family pets boost social skills in children with the disorder

MONDAY, Jan. 5, 2015 (HealthDay News) -- Owning a pet may play a role in social skills development for some children with autism, a new study suggests.

The findings are among the first to investigate possible links between pets and social skills in kids with an autism spectrum disorder -- a group of developmental disorders that affect a child's ability to communicate and socialize.

"Research in the area of pets for children with autism is very new and limited. But it may be that the animals helped to act as a type of communication bridge, giving children with autism something to talk about with others," said study author Gretchen Carlisle, a researcher at the University of Missouri's College of Veterinary Medicine and Thompson Center for Autism & Neurodevelopmental Disorders. "We know this happens with adults and typically developing children."

She said the study showed a difference in social skills that was significantly greater for children with autism living with any pet.

But, the associations are weak, according to autism expert Dr. Glen Elliott, chief psychiatrist and medical director of Children's Health Council in Palo Alto, Calif.

"One absolutely cannot assume that dog ownership is going to improve an autistic child's social skills, certainly not from this study," he said.

It's also important to note that while this study found a difference in social skills in children with autism who had pets at home, the study wasn't designed to prove whether or not pet ownership was the actual cause of those differences.

A large body of research, described in the study's background, has found dog owners share close bonds with their pets. Past research also shows that pets can provide typically developing children with emotional support.

Pets have also been shown to help facilitate social interaction. And, pets have been linked to greater empathy and social confidence in typically developing children. Past research in children with autism has focused only on service dogs, therapy dogs, equine-assisted therapy and dolphins, Carlisle said.

Carlisle wanted to see if having a family pet might make a difference in children with autism. To do so, she conducted a telephone survey with 70 parents of children diagnosed with any autism spectrum disorder. The parents answered questions about their child's attachment to their dog and their child's social skills, such as communication, responsibility, assertiveness, empathy, engagement and self-control.

Carlisle also interviewed the children about their attachment to their pets. The children were between the ages of 8 and 18. Each child had an IQ of at least 70, according to the study.

The study found that 57 households owned any pets at all. Among those families, 47 owned dogs and 36 had cats. Other pets included fish, farm animals, rodents, rabbits, reptiles, a bird and a spider.

The study results showed no significant differences in overall or individual social skills between children who owned dogs and those who didn't. But, owning a dog for longer periods of time was weakly linked to stronger social skills and fewer problem behaviors after accounting for a child's age, the researcher found.

The study could not show whether having a dog influenced children's social skills or whether more socially capable children were more likely to own a dog.

Compared to the 13 children without pets, those who owned any pet -- whether a dog or not -- showed slightly more assertiveness, such as willingness to approach others or respond to others. However, the study only included children whose parents said their children would answer questions on the telephone. No other differences in social skills or problem behaviors existed between the pet-owning and non-pet-owning children, according to the study.

The findings were published in the Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders.

"Although the author makes a case for possible advantages of having a pet, specifically a dog, for higher functioning children with autism spectrum disorders, parents should look carefully at these results and their own circumstances," Elliott said.

He noted there were no statistically significant findings shown in the study data. The study also didn't consider whether pet ownership could have negative effects, according to Elliott.

"The effects are not especially robust and could just as easily be a result of more socially competent children with autism spectrum disorders being attracted to dogs as a relatively safe, low-demand but high-yield form of social contact," Elliot noted.

Pets are less complex and demanding than people, Elliott added. Some children with autism may be able to better exercise social skills with the right kind of pet, but the evidence does not yet show that this behavior extends to interactions with people.

Both Elliott and Carlisle said it's essential for parents to consider their ability to care for any pet before getting one.

"Thinking about the time demands of the pet, the child's sensory issues and family lifestyle when choosing a pet are important to increasing the likelihood for the successful integration of that new pet into the family," Carlisle said. "For example, a child sensitive to loud noises may respond better to a quiet pet."

But Elliott said parents should not mistakenly believe that the potentially positive addition of a pet to a household will be the answer to a child's social difficulties.

"The idea that animals -- dogs, horses, dolphins, to name a few -- can uniquely 'get through' to children with autism is not new," Elliott said. "It certainly seems to be a source of pleasure for some children with autism -- and for many without autism also -- but it is not a cure for an underlying disorder."

More information

Learn more about how autism is treated from The Autism Society.

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