The simple presence of an animal can strongly enhance positive social behaviors in children with autism spectrum disorders (ASD), according to new research.
For the study, researcher Marguerite E. O’Haire and colleagues from the University of Queensland, Australia, compared how children 5 to 13 years old with ASD interacted with adults and typically-developing peers in the presence of two guinea pigs compared to toys.
The findings revealed that in the presence of animals, children with ASD exhibited better social skills such as talking, looking at faces and making physical contact. The children were also more open to accepting social advances from peers in the presence of the animals than they were when playing with toys.
The presence of animals also brought about more moments of smiling and laughing, and reduced frowning, whining and crying behaviors in children with ASD more than having toys did.
Prior research has shown that people are more likely to become friends with strangers who are walking a dog instead of walking alone, and similar effects have been found for people holding smaller animals like rabbits or turtles.
According to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, approximately one in 88 U.S. children will develop an autism spectrum disorder, which is characterized by significant social, communication and behavioral difficulties.
The researchers suggest that the “social lubricant” effect of animals on human social interactions can be especially vital for people who suffer with social and emotional disabilities.
According to the study, the presence of an animal may help children with ASD connect to adults and foster interactions with therapists, teachers or other adult figures. The researchers add that interventions with animals may have applications in the classroom as well.
“For children with ASD, the school classroom can be a stressful and overwhelming environment due to social challenges and peer victimization. If an animal can reduce this stress or artificially change children’s perception of the classroom and its occupants, then a child with ASD may feel more at ease and open to social approach behaviors,” said the researchers.
The research was published February 20 in the open access journal PLOS ONE.