Animal Friends Soothe Autistic Children

Relief for Stressful Social Situations




According to the Centers for Disease Control, autism spectrum disorder (ASD) now affects about 1 in every 68 children in the U.S., up from 1 in 150 in 2000. This includes 1 in 42 boys and 1 in 189 girls. Contact with animals may help ameliorate this troubling trend. A recent study of 114 children between 5 and 12 years old has found that autistic children having greater contact with animals have less anxiety related to social situations.

The research was led by Marguerite O’Haire, Ph.D., from the Center for the Human-Animal Bond at the College of Veterinary Medicine of Purdue University, in West Lafayette, Indiana. Colleagues from the School of Psychology at the University of Queensland, in Brisbane, Australia, also participated in the study.

The researchers divided the 114 children into 38 groups of three. Each group had one ASD child and two children without ASD. Skin conductance, which provides an objective way for researchers to gauge social anxiety, was measured among the children as they read silently and aloud. As expected, skin conductance was significantly higher among the ASD children as they read aloud in front of their peers. In successive sessions, when researchers introduced pet guinea pigs for the children to pet prior to their readings, the ASD children’s skin conductance levels dropped significantly.

“Previous studies suggest that in the presence of companion animals, children with autism spectrum disorders function better socially,” says James Griffin, Ph.D., of the Child Development and Behavior Branch of the U.S. National Institutes of Health. “This study provides physiological evidence that the proximity of animals eases the stress that children with autism may experience in social situations.”

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