Value of pets to autistic children revealed in study

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Autistic children will often respond positively to a family pet, if well chosen, research shows. Photo: Noël Zia Lee, Wikimedia Commons
Autistic children will often respond positively to a family pet, if well chosen, research shows. © Noël Zia Lee

The potential value of family pets to children with autism has been highlighted in an American study.

A University of Missouri researcher studied dog ownership decisions in families of children with autism.

Researcher Gretchen Carlisle found the parents reported the benefits of dog ownership included companionship, stress relief and opportunities for their children to learn responsibility.

Although her study addressed only dog ownership among families affected by autism, Carlisle said dogs might not be the best pet for every child with autism.

“Dogs may be best for some families, although other pets such as cats, horses or rabbits might be better suited to other children with autism and their particular sensitivities and interests,” she said.

“Children with autism spectrum disorders often struggle with interacting with others, which can make it difficult for them to form friendships,” said Carlisle, a research fellow at the Research Center for Human-Animal Interaction in the university’s College of Veterinary Medicine.

“Children with autism may especially benefit from interacting with dogs, which can provide unconditional, nonjudgmental love and companionship to the children.”

Carlisle interviewed 70 parents of children with autism. Nearly two-thirds of the parents in the study owned dogs, and of those parents, 94 percent reported their children with autism were bonded to their dogs.

Even in families without dogs, 70 percent of parents said their children with autism liked dogs. Many dog-owning parents said they specifically chose to get dogs because of the perceived benefits to their children with autism, Carlisle said.

“Dogs can help children with autism by acting as a social lubricant,” she said. “For example, children with autism may find it difficult to interact with other neighborhood children.

“If the children with autism invite their peers to play with their dogs, then the dogs can serve as bridges that help the children with autism communicate with their peers.”

Parents of children with autism should consider their children’s sensitivities carefully when choosing a dog in order to ensure a good match between pet and child, Carlisle said.

“Bringing a dog into any family is a big step, but for families of children with autism, getting a dog should be a decision that’s taken very seriously.

“If a child with autism is sensitive to loud noises, choosing a dog that is likely to bark will not provide the best match for the child and the family. If the child has touch sensitivities, perhaps a dog with a softer coat, such as a poodle, would be better than a dog with a wiry or rough coat, such as a terrier.”

Carlisle recommended that parents involved their children with autism when choosing a dog.

“Many children with autism know the qualities they want in a dog,” Carlisle said. “If parents could involve their kids in choosing dogs for their families, it may be more likely the children will have positive experiences with the animals when they are brought home.

She said autistic children’s particular sensitivies might ultimately make other pets such as cats, horses or rabbits a more suitable choice.

Rebecca Johnson, a professor at the university’s College of Veterinary Medicine and an authority in gerontological nursing, said: “This research adds scientific credibility to the benefits of human-animal interaction.

“This research helps us understand the role of companion animals in improving the lives of children with autism and helps health professionals learn how to best guide families in choosing pets for their families.”

Carlisle’s study, “Pet Dog Ownership Decisions for Parents of Children With Autism Spectrum Disorder“, was published in the Journal of Pediatric Nursing.


One thought on “Value of pets to autistic children revealed in study

  • April 16, 2014 at 8:08 am

    As a mother of an autistic daughter we have had a lot of success with cats. I have also seen many programs popping up around the country for service dogs to help autistic children. I would highly recommend looking into special training for anyone who is getting a dog – it can really change lives.

    I would also like to mention a great website for families impacted by autism, is designed to help families find the treatments, therapists and services they need in the local area. It also has a lot of links to online support through links to organizations, forums and other references.


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