Autism spectrum disorders (ASDs) are a range of conditions in which kids have trouble communicating and interacting with others, and behave appropriately in social situations. The results of this study showed that children with an autism spectrum disorder experienced decreased levels of the stress hormone cortisol after a service dog was introduced into the family. Previous research has shown these dogs can help autistic children in social situations and improve their daily routine, but the new study is the first to show the dogs can have physiological benefits as well.
“Our findings showed that the dogs had a clear impact on the children’s stress hormone levels,” study researcher Sonia Lupien, a professor at the University of Montréal, said in a statement. “I have not seen such a dramatic effect before.”
The dogs also improved the children’s behavior, reducing the number of problems reported by parents. Lupien and her colleagues measured the cortisol levels in the saliva of 42 children with an ASD. In normal production of cortisol, it reaches peaks about 30 minutes after a person wakes up, a phenomenon known as the cortisol awakening response, and it decreases over the course of the day.
The children’s cortisol awakening response was measured before, during and after the service dog was introduced. The dogs were specially trained to be obedient and remain calm even in chaotic environments.
In the two weeks before the dogs were brought in, the children’s cortisol levels rose 58 percent during the first 30 minutes they were awake in the morning. But this awakening response was reduced to just a 10 percent rise when the dogs were present. After the dogs were taken away once more after four weeks, the cortisol awakening response jumped back up to a 48 percent increase.
Parents also reported a decrease in their child’s ambiguous and disruptive behaviors, such as tantrums, when the dog was there. The average number of these behaviors dropped from 33, in the two weeks prior to the dog’s presence, to 25 while the animal was part of the household.
More research needs to be done on children with autism to figure out if these decreases in cortisol levels actually relate to a change in a child’s stress level, the researchers say. The researchers also go on to say that earlier studies have found that children with sutism are calmer and happier when a service dog is around. Future studies will also examine why the dogs decrease cortisol levels. For instance, it could be that the dogs help children sleep better, which may have affected the cortisol levels, the researchers said.
“Introducing service dogs to children with ASD has received growing attention in recent decades,” Lupien said. “Our results lend support to the potential behavioral benefits of service dogs for autistic children.”