Pets engage social skills in kids with autism

August 9, 2012

Acquiring a new pet after children with autism are 5 years old improves their social skills, French researchers found in a small study. Does having a pet since birth have the same effect? More >>

Acquiring a new pet after children with autism are 5 years old improves their social skills, French researchers found in a small study.

Impaired social development is a key characteristic of autistic disorders, and various strategies have been proposed to improve the social interactions of children with autism. The current study examined the association between the presence or arrival of a pet in families with a child with autism and changes in the child’s prosocial behaviors over time.

The researchers conducted 2 separate analyses of participants (mean age, 15 years) selected from a pool of 260 persons who met Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fourth Edition,criteria for autistic disorders. The first analysis compared 12 persons who did not have a pet in the family before age 4 or 5 but got one later with a matched group of 12 persons who never had a pet in the family. The second analysis compared 8 persons who had a pet in the family since birth with 8 persons who never owned a pet.

The Autism Diagnostic Interview-Revised (ADI-R) was used to assess participants’ behavior when aged 4 to 5 years and then again a few years later. The mean age at the second assessment was 10.8 years in the first analysis and 11.1 years in the second. Parents completed a questionnaire about the child’s relationship with the pet.

On the second assessment, children who acquired a pet after 5 years had positive changes on 2 of the 36 items measured by the ADI-R: “offering to share” and “offering comfort.” No significant changes occurred in children who had a pet since birth or in those who had never had a pet.

The arrival of a pet may have triggered a change in the child’s perception of the “social world,” as has been shown in children with typical development, the researchers suggest. Also, arrival of a pet may strengthen family interactions.

Go back to the current issue of the eConsult.