The benefits of service animals, especially dogs, have been well documented in helping autistic children by keeping them safe and providing comfort. However, a new study suggests that keeping any type of pet in the home can be beneficial for a child’s social development.
Dogs can also help improve a child’s social skills. New research has demonstrated that this may also be true for pets kept in the home that the child feels close to.
Dr. Gretchen Carlisle, a research fellow in the University of Missouri’s College of Veterinary Medicine’s Research Center for Human-Animal Interaction (ReCHAI), has observed children with social difficulty in the home setting. She has noticed that children interact with each other more when a trusted pet is around.
This finding is true of children in general, but is especially true of children with autism, according to Dr. Carlisle. She found that autistic children who kept pets exhibited more assertive behavior than those who did not. Dr. Carlisle refers to this phenomenon as “social lubricant.”
Children with autism do not always find it easy to open up to others, particularly strangers. But with a trusted pet in the home they have already bonded to, it is often easier for them to open up to a visitor when talking about the pet.
When conducting the survey, Dr. Carlisle studied a total of 70 families with children between the ages of 8 and 18. Of these families, about 70% had dogs and 50% kept cats. Many families also kept more uncommon pets such as reptiles, rodents, birds, fish, and even a spider.
After reviewing the results, it was concluded that children living with pet dogs had better social skills than those who lived with no pets. Carlisle also discovered that social skills improved gradually the longer the family had kept the dog.
But the results also showed that social success was linked to many other pets as well. In particular, Carlisle noticed that children with autism spectrum disorder engaged more willingly in social interactions like introducing themselves, asking for things, and answering questions, than the children who did not keep animals.
These findings show that it would benefit autism researchers to look at the broader scope of pet therapy so that it is not only limited to service dogs. Maybe your child loves their rabbit or bearded dragon and feels they have a non-judging friend they can trust. In the past, we have also seen that horses can be therapeutic to children with autism.
Having a pet in the home can put a child at ease in many ways, especially if they tend to be withdrawn. With a beloved animal nearby, many children do not feel so alone.