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Study: Dogs Might Improve Social Skills of Children With Autism

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Pet ownership may be associated with increased social skills in children with autism, according to a recent study that be might be a win for the class hamster.

Gretchen K. Carlisle, a scientist at the Research Center for Human Animal Interaction at the University of Missouri, surveyed parents and children over the phone to ask questions about the connection between children with autism and their pets. The children involved ranged in age between eight and 18 years old.

More 40 million U.S. households have dogs, and just under 40 million have cats, according to the American Veterinary Medical Association. As Carlisle notes, many parents adopt pets in order to help their children with learning responsibility, and to have as companions. But teaching responsibility to children with autism is not so simple as bringing a labrador retriever into the house.

The survey asked parents to grade their children's social skills, focusing on seven areas: communication, cooperation, assertion, responsibility, empathy, engagement and self-control. It also examined problem behaviors, such as bullying and hyperactivity.

Carlisle found that dog ownership alone did not significantly affect social skills, but social skills did improve in autistic children of dog-owning families the longer that they had the dog; problem behaviors also decreased over time. In families that had any kind of pet, children with autism showed improved assertion over those in non-pet families, but showed no other significant differences. Carlisle noted one other finding: The children reported increased affection for smaller breeds. (As someone raised around larger dogs, I don't understand this.)

The results echo the findings of a February 2013 study by the University of Queensland, in Australia. In that study, children with autism appeared to show improved interaction skills during class after playing with animals, rather than playing with toys.

Carlisle's study has a number of limitations. Self-reporting, especially by children, can be tricky, although their answers reportedly aligned well with the answers from their parents, and Carlisle says she conducted the survey in a manner meant to reduce parental influence on children's answers. Also, the survey was only of 70 families—larger studies would be helpful. Another limitation: Families might have dogs precisely because the children in those families demonstrate the capacity to grow certain social skills.

But the study is meant more as an entry point to discussions about the effect of animals on children, not as a judgment about their social value. Last fall, Education Week asked educators to share pictures of their classroom pets, as well as the pedagogical purpose those animals serve. It's one thing to have an animal, in school or in the house, but if Carlisle's study indicates anything, it's that learning from pets is not automatic.

The Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders published the study last fall.

Image: Awwwwwwwww! Credit: Mei/Flickr Creative Commons

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