Study: Pets Improve Social Skills for Children with Autism

When you have a child with autism (or any disability), therapy dogs are a wonderful addition to the home. Unfortunately, not all parents have the resources to obtain a specially trained animal. Never fear! A new study suggests that simply having animals in the home could help improve the social skills of children with autism.

boy with his dog

“When I compared the social skills of children with autism who lives with dogs to those who did not, the children with dogs appeared to have great social skills,” Gretchen Carlisle, research fellow at the Research Center for Human-Animal Interaction (ReCHAI in the MU College of Veterinary Medicine. “Most significantly, however, the data revealed that children with any kind of pet in the home reported being more likely to engage in behaviors such as introducing themselves, asking for information, or responding to other people’s questions. These kinds of social skills are typically difficult for kids with autism, but this study showed children’s assertiveness was greater if they lived with a pet.”

This shouldn’t be news, of course—not when animals seem to be a sort of “social lubricant” for all children, Carlisle said. In fact, studies have shown that even neurotypical children tend to talk and engage more with one another when there is a pet in the classroom. And it is this very same effect that Carlisle believes benefits children with autism when there are pets within the home.

“When children with disabilities take their service dogs in public, other kids top and engage,” Carlisle said. “Kids with autism don’t always readily engage with others, but if there’s a pet in the home that the child is bonded with and a visitor starts asking about the pet, the child may be more likely to respond.”

Other findings of interest included that, the longer a family owned a dog, the more the child’s social skills seemed to improve; older children seemed to rate their relationships with dogs as weaker; and children seemed to report the strongest attachment to smaller dogs.

“Finding children with autism to be more strongly bonded to smaller dogs, and parents reported strong attachments between their children and other pets, such as rabbits or cats, serves as evidence that other types of pets could benefit children with autism as well,” Carlisle said.

And this little piece of information could be especially helpful when finding the perfect family pet for those that have a child with autism. Because each child is unique, and autism affects each child so very differently, it is very possible that a cat or a rabbit or some other small pet might be the best fit for their child.

“Dogs are good for some kids with autism but might not be the best option for every child,” Carlisle said. “Kids with autism are highly individual and unique, so some other animals may provide just as much benefit as dogs. Though parents may assume having dogs are bet to help their children, my data shows greater social skills for children with autism who live in homes with any type of pet.”

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About the author


Kate Givans is a wife and a mother of five—four sons (one with autism) and a daughter. She’s an advocate for breastfeeding, women’s rights, against domestic violence, and equality for all. When not writing—be it creating her next romance novel or here on Growing Your Baby—Kate can be found discussing humanitarian issues, animal rights, eco-awareness, food, parenting, and her favorite books and shows on Twitter or Facebook. Laundry is the bane of her existence, but armed with a cup of coffee, she sometimes she gets it done.

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