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Class Pets May Help Students With Autism Socialize

Classroom pets have gone somewhat out of vogue, but a new study in PLOS-1 suggests the presence of animals can help students with autism spectrum disorders become more comfortable socializing with adults and other students.

"Social Behaviors Increase in Children with Autism in the Presence of Animals Compared to Toys," finds pretty much what the title says. American and Australian researchers led by Marguerite E. O'Haire of the University of Queensland, Australia, recorded 99 students, a third of whom had spectrum disorders, as they played with toys and with guinea pigs in classroom sessions over eight weeks.

During play sessions with the animals (as compared to play with toys alone), the students with autism more frequently talked, smiled or laughed, looked at other students' faces, and made appropriate social touches, and they less often frowned, cried, or whined. Further, the researchers found other students made more attempts to approach the students with autism in return when animals were in the mix. In fact, the researchers found students were more likely to socialize appropriately if an animal was in the room, even if it was not part of direct play.

"Animals appear to contribute a unique component to social situations that encourages social interaction above and beyond the presence of something new, fun, and engaging," the authors concluded, adding that the study's findings "provide insight into a new strategy to increase interactions for children with [autistic spectrum disorders] with their [typically developing] peers in the school classroom."

Classroom pets seem to have fallen a bit out of vogue in recent years, what with lizards and frogs at risk for transmitting salmonella, and many species causing problems for students with allergies. According to the American Humane Society, teachers who can't or don't want to include an animal in the classroom may have other options, such as creating a window bird- or animal feeder to attract wild animals, or contacting a group that brings therapy animals for visits.

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