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Pets Boost Social Skills in Kids with Autism

Getting a pet may help autistic children improve their social skills, a small study showed.

Children with autism who acquired a pet after age 5 showed gains in two prosocial behaviors  -  "offering to share" and "offering comfort"  -  compared with those who had never had a pet (P<0.0014 for both), according to Marine Grandgeorge, PhD, of the Centre Hospitalier Regional Universitaire de Brest in France, and colleagues.

Autistic children who had had a pet since birth, however, showed no differences compared with their pet-less peers, the researchers reported online in PLoS One.

"Given the potential ability of individuals with autism to develop prosocial behaviors, related studies are needed to better understand the mechanisms involved in the development of such child-pet relationships," the authors wrote.

Obtaining prosocial behaviors is a key part of development that can be impaired in patients with autistic disorders. Many strategies have been used to improve how autistic children interact socially, including animal-assisted therapies.

In the current study, Grandgeorge and colleagues explored the association between the presence of pets in the home and changes in autistic children's social behaviors over time.

Selecting from a pool of 260 individuals who met DSM-IV criteria for autistic disorders, the researchers performed two separate analyses.

In the first, they matched 12 individuals who did not have a pet in the family before age 4 or 5 but got one after age 5 by age, sex, language ability, and history of epilepsy with 12 individuals who had never had a pet in the family. The average age at the time of assessment was 10.8, with a range of 7 to 15.

In the second analysis, the researchers matched eight individuals who had had a pet in the family from birth with eight individuals who had never had a pet in the family. The average age at assessment was 11.1, with a range of 6 to 16.

The pets involved included dogs, cats, one hamster, and one rabbit.

All of the participants were assessed with the 36-item Autism Diagnostic Interview-Revised (ADI-R) at age 4 or 5 and then at some point after age 5. The tool measures four main domains  -  reciprocal social interactions, verbal and nonverbal communication, and stereotyped behaviors and restricted interests.

The parents also completed a questionnaire about the relationship between their child with autism and the pet.

Pet ownership appeared to be associated with improvements in two of the 36 items on the ADI-R  -  "offering to share" and "offering comfort"  -  but only in the group of children who obtained the pet after age 5. There were no changes observed in the children who had had a pet from birth or in the children who had never had a pet.

Interactions between the children and the pets  -  including tactile and visual interactions, time spent with the pet, play, and care  -  were more frequently reported in the families who acquired the pet after the child with autism turned 5.

It is possible, the authors noted, that parents who obtained a pet may have done so to improve their child's social skills and thus may have been biased in their assessments. However, the changes in prosocial behaviors occurred even in families in which the pet was acquired for other reasons.

Another possible explanation for the findings is that the arrival of the pet actually induced the behavioral changes, as has been observed in children without developmental impairments.

"Pets are supposed to enhance different skills in children with typical development, such as self-esteem, socio-emotional development, and empathy," Grandgeorge and colleagues wrote. "According to several authors, children with typical development seem to learn prosocial behaviors through their interactions with pets (e.g. sharing with and stroking the pet)."

Source: Todd  Neale, Senior Staff Writer, MedPage Today.  Published: August 01, 2012

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