Some autistic people report feeling more strongly connected to animals than to other people, but a new study suggests that introducing companion animals to autistic children at the right time in life may help with human bonding.
French researchers studied 40 children with autism and their families, examining whether the family had a pet, when the animal was acquired, and whether the presence or absence of a pet had any influence on the autistic child’s ability to bond. Most households with pets had either dogs or cats.
It appeared that having a pet at all didn’t matter as much as when the pet was introduced to the home. Autistic children who grew up with a pet from birth appeared to be no different from those living in households without pets, but children who received a pet at age 4 or 5 showed major improvement in two social skills that are not only difficult for autistic people, but are also critical in sustaining human relationships: sharing with others and comforting people in distress.Autistic children who received a pet when they were around kindergarten age showed gains in both behaviors, though there was no improvement in other areas, and the changes were still measurable several years later: the average age of the children in the study was 10.
From historic times, dogs were regarded positively and had a special role, such as emblem of a Sumerian goddess, and dog healers for the dogs living in temples. Later, dogs were valued for their help in guarding properties, herding, hunting and for their ability to entertain their guardians by providing physical and psychological comfort. Today is it common for dogs to be considered as members of the family. Dogs have gained a prominent role in our lives, and are the most sought-after companion animal in Western cultures. While studies on human-animal research are expanding, researchers are identifying beneficial effects associated with the presence of companion dogs.
In other research, researchers encouraged the interactions between children and dog by showing and modeling to the children how to play with the dog. The results from this study suggested that children displayed fewer autistic behaviours and more social behaviours during and after they interacted with the dog. After one month, without having a dog present, their behaviours were still improved. Children with ASD who interacted and spent more time with their dog had better language skills, over a prolonged period, regardless of symptom severity. The children also had strong bonds to their companion dogs, and the dogs showed attachment towards the children; there was a direct correlation between the attachment of children and dogs’ attachment – children who were more attached to the dogs had dogs who were more attached to them.
The ability to share and to give comfort to those in need rely on the separate ability to recognize the desires and emotions of others and to empathize with them. A fundamental problem that characterizes autism is difficulty in understanding other people’s thoughts, feelings and intentions — known as “mind reading” or “theory of mind” — so improvement in these pro-social behaviors means that children are improving on one of the key aspects of the condition. Moreover, these changes were not correlated with IQ scores, meaning that all autistic children, regardless of the severity of their symptoms, could potentially show the same benefits.
The National Institute of Health has expressed an interest in funding studies that examine human-animal interaction, putting out a call for investigations that focus specifically on child health and development in 2010. The advocacy group Autism Speaks has awarded several grants to investigators studying equine therapy, or the use of horses to help improve children’s social behaviors and their motor skills, while other studies have looked at dogs.
There is mounting evidence suggesting that pets can improve both mental and physical health for all people; research suggests that animal companions reduce stress, improve mood and may even prevent the development of some allergies if introduced in childhood. However, simply having a pet around isn’t enough to reap psychological benefits: you must love and connect with the animal, or else, not surprisingly, it won’t relieve your stress or lift your mood.