Posted on 5th Jan, 2015: It is widely acknowledged and proven that dogs (in particular well trained therapy dogs) can help autistic kids develop their social skills and is one of the key areas of focus for Animal Assisted Therapy (AAT) practitioners. However, not all families with autistic kids may be able to keep a dog at home or even get access to a well-trained therapy dog. Fortunately, there is hope for such families as per the latest research emerging from University of Missouri (MU). As per this new research not only dogs but cats, rabbits and other animals may also be beneficial for autistic kids to develop their social skills. The study carried out by Dr. Gretchen Carlisle, research fellow in the MU College of Veterinary Medicine's Research Center for Human-Animal Interaction (ReCHAI), surveyed 70 families with autistic kids in age range from 8 to 18 years – almost 70% families surveyed had dogs while 50% had cats. Other pets included farm animals, reptiles, rodents, rabbits, fish, a bird and even a spider. When Dr. Carlisle compared the pet survey result with assessments of the children's social skills, she found that not only those kids who were living with a pet dog had much better social skills but the same was also true for kids living with other pets as compared to those who did not have a pet. She found the kids living with pets were more assertive and “more likely to engage in behaviors such as introducing themselves, asking for information or responding to other people's questions.” – kinds of social skills which are typically difficult for kids with Autism. As to how pets help kids develop these skills? Dr. Carlisle explains that pets act as “social lubricants” where otherwise an autistic child may not readily engage with others but if he is well bonded with the pet, he is more likely to respond say when a visitor asks question about the pet. Interestingly, Dr. Carlisle further goes on to say that in some cases the benefit may be much more with another pet than dogs. For instance, in case of kids who may be highly sensitive, dogs perhaps may not be the best pets due to their high energy levels and low energy pets such as cats or rabbits might fare better.
Rohini Fernandes, clinical psychologists and founder of Animal Angel Foundation – a Mumbai based organization which provides Animal Assisted Therapy for adults and children including autistic kids, has also found other pets to be effective in case of some of the autistic kids, “We work mainly with dogs but one of the schools we work at also has a fish tank. There have been times when we have observed that some children who came to us for therapy were scared of our dog or did not take to them. But when they saw the fish they were very fascinated by them and it definitely had a positive impact on them. In fact one teacher had told us how one child, a five year old with autism (who was not motivated towards our dog) would actually calm down every morning if she let him sit in front of the fish tank for ten minutes. He was more relaxed after that and would even be able to focus better on his tasks then.” On the question of using low energy pets for highly sensitive kids, Rohini points out, “There are some children who like to cuddle up to our dogs for the entire 30 minute session. Also we have some dogs on our team who are extremely energetic and cannot sit still for long periods of time. So we always try to match the dog to the child. If it’s a child who loves to hug and sit with our dog we choose a dog with low energy levels. If it’s a child who likes to play games then we choose an energetic dog.” In essence, according to her it is about finding the pet with right temperament and for the child to like the animal for the therapy to work.
While this study once again corroborates the positive impact dogs can have on autistic kids besides bringing out a new and important finding about the impact of other pets on such kids, families need to exercise caution before they rush out to get a pet. According to Rohini, “With regard to dogs if they are not trained then it could have a negative impact on the child. There are children who come to us who have dogs at home but they are still scared of dogs as their pets may have bitten them or they bark a lot which makes the child uncomfortable. Of course if you have birds or rabbits as pets you may not be able to train them but they should be good natured and play time with the child should always be supervised so that the child does not unintentionally harm the pet.”