Pets and autistic childrenHaving a pet in the family can benefit children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) finds new research from the University of Missouri (MU). While previous research in pets and ASD has focused on how dogs can help children with ASD, the new study finds that any type of family pet can support children on the spectrum. The research reports that pets can be “social lubricants” for children with ASD and that children with pets are more likely to engage in certain social behaviors.

Seventy families who had children with ASD participated in the study. The children were between the ages of 8 and 18 and were patients at the MU Thompson Center for Autism and Neurodevelopmental Disorders. Around 70 percent of the families reported having dogs and 50 percent reported having cats. Some families had other types of pets including fish, farm animals, rodents, rabbits, reptiles, birds, and spiders.

Children with ASD have stronger social skills when they have any pet at home. Children with dogs had greater social skills, but Gretchen Carlisle, study author and research fellow at the Researcher Center for Human-Animal Interaction at MU explains that “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.”

The findings also indicate that the longer a family owned a dog, the more the child’s social skills increased. Children with ASD reported being most strongly bonded to smaller dogs, but parent reports suggest that children form strong attachments between other types of pets too, like rabbits and cats.

Dogs may be the right pet for some children with ASD, but may not be the best choice for all children on the spectrum. Parents of children with autism who are looking to adopt a pet might consider letting their child participate in the selection process.

This research is published in the Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders.

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