How Pets Help Kids With Autism

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Boy (5-7) embracing chihuahua, close-up
Photo: Benn Mitchell/Getty Images

Kids with autism can have it tough. Buffeted by sensory stimuli that they find extremely uncomfortable, but lacking the social tools to fully express what they’re going through, they often resort to “problem” behaviors of various sorts. It’s not common, but in the worst cases, this can include self-harm and physical altercations with family members, making life extremely difficult for their parents or other caretakers (I can’t recommend this “Radiolab” episode highly enough for those looking to better understand what it’s like to have a kid with severe autism). 

Naturally, researchers are looking for ways to help autistic kids suffer less, which will in turn lead to more manageable behavior. And according to a recent study in the Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, simply having a pet may help out significantly.

As the press release explains:

When I compared the social skills of children with autism who lived with dogs to those who did not, the children with dogs appeared to have greater social skills,” said Gretchen Carlisle, research fellow at the Research Center for Human-Animal Interaction (ReCHAI) in the [Missouri University] College of Veterinary Medicine. “More 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 typically are difficult for kids with autism, but this study showed children’s assertiveness was greater if they lived with a pet.”

Pets, in short, act as a potent social lubricant: Put two or more people together in a room with an animal, and it’s likely to spark a conversation. It appears that living with a pet exposes kids with autism to more of these exchanges, which in turn helps teach and reinforce social behaviors that can extend into non-pet realms as well.

But it’s not as simple as throwing a child with autism into a room with a pet, however. As the accompanying video (not linkable or embeddable) explains, for kids more sensitive to sensory stimuli, lower-energy pets like rabbits might be a better bet, since a puppy bounding around the room could prove a bit overwhelming.