Animals Help Children With Autism Show Increased Positive Social Behaviors

Research published February 2013 in the open access journal PLOS ONE by Marguerite E O’Haire and colleagues from the University of Queensland, Australia indicates that the existence of an animals in the presence of these children can significantly increase positive social behaviors in children with autism spectrum disorders (ASD).

The authors found that these children were also more sympathetic to social advances from their peers in the presence of the animals than they were when playing with toys. They compared how 5-13 year old children with ASD interacted with adults and typically-developing peers in the company of two guinea pigs compared to toys. The presence of animals also improved  smiling and laughing, and reduced frowning, whining and crying behaviors in children with ASD more than having toys did.

Earlier studies have shown that people are more likely to receive overtures of friendship from strangers when walking a dog than when walking alone, and similar effects have been observed for people holding smaller animals like rabbits or turtles. The authors suggest that this ‘social lubricant’ effect of animals on human social interactions can be particularly important for individuals with socio-emotional disabilities.

The authors believe that the potential of an animal to help children with ASD bond to adults may help advance interactions with therapists, teachers or other adult figures. They also found that animal-assisted intervention may have applications in the classroom as well, saying “For children with ASD, the school classroom can be a stressful and overwhelming environment due to social challenges and peer victimization. If an animal can reduce this stress or artificially change children’s perception of the classroom and its occupants, then a child with ASD may feel more at ease and open to social approach behaviors.”