August 2, 2012

Having A Pet May Positively Influence Autistic Child’s Behavior

Lee Rannals for - Your Universe Online

Having a pet around may just help improve an autistic child's social skills, according to a new study published in PLoS ONE journal.

Autistic children who had a pet after they turned five were more likely to offer comfort and share things, researchers from the Hospital Research Center of Brest in France found. However, the children who had pets in the family since birth did not show to have had the same effect as the others.

The team said this could be because a pet brought in later in life could have a novelty value, helping to strengthen family bonds by increasing interaction with each other.

For the study, the researchers analyzed 24 autistic children who had an average age of 11 and attended a daycare in France.

A dozen of the children had received a dog, cat or rabbit after turning five, while the rest never had a pet before.

The children's parents completed a survey commonly used to diagnose autism when the children were five, and filled it in again at the time of the study.

The team found that the children with pets were better at being able to share food or toys with their parents or other children, and also showed they were able to provide comfort for those who were sad or hurt.

There was not improvement found in the second study that compared eight children who had pets in the family from birth, and eight who had no pets.

The scientists said the children spent time playing and petting an animal if they got one when they were young, while those who had always had a pet in the house showed fewer interactions.

The researchers warned that the study was small, and little is known about how many pets may influence a child's development, so further studies still need to be done.

Alycia Halladay, director of environmental research for Autism Speaks, said the study does back up the stories suggesting pets help autistic children learn to interact with the world, but doesn't believe people should necessarily jump to the idea of adopting a new house guest.

"We certainly don't want families who are already stressed to get the idea that they need to add a pet to their family if that pet is not really wanted," she told WebMD.