According to a study published in Developmental Psychobiology, companion animals, such as dogs, cats or guinea pigs, may be a good addition to treatment programs designed to help children with ASDs improve their social skills and interactions with other people.
“Previous studies suggest that in the presence of companion animals, children with autism spectrum disorders function better socially,” said James Griffin, Ph.D., of the Child Development and Behavior Branch at Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD).
“This study provides physiological evidence that the proximity of animals eases the stress that children with autism may experience in social situations.”
For the new study, researchers measured skin conductance — the ease at which an unnoticeable electric charge passes through a patch of skin — in children with ASDs and in typically developing children.
Researchers divided 114 children, ages five to 12 years old, into 38 groups of three. Each group included one child with ASD and two typically developing children.
Each child wore a wrist band fitted with a device that measures skin conductance. When people are feeling excited, fearful, or anxious, the electric charge travels faster through the skin, providing an objective way to gauge social anxiety and other forms of psychological arousal, according to the researchers.
For the first few minutes, the children read a book silently, giving researchers a baseline measure of skin conductance while carrying out a non-stressful, familiar task. Next, each child was asked to read aloud from the book, a task designed to measure their level of apprehension during social situations.
The researchers then brought toys in the room and allowed the children 10 minutes of free play time. These situations may be stressful for children with ASDs, who may have difficulty relating socially to typically developing peers, the researchers note.
Finally, the researchers brought two guinea pigs into the room and allowed the children to have 10 minutes of supervised play with the animals. The researchers said they chose guinea pigs because of their small size and docile nature.
The researchers found that, compared to the typically developing children, the children with autism had higher skin conductance levels when reading silently, reading aloud, and in the group toy session.
These higher levels are consistent with reports from parents and teachers, and from other studies, that children with ASDs are more likely to be anxious in social situations than typically developing children.
When the session with the guinea pigs began, however, skin conductance levels among the children with ASDs dropped significantly, according to the study’s findings.
The researchers speculate that because companion animals offer unqualified acceptance, their presence makes the children feel more secure.
For reasons the researchers cannot explain, skin conductance levels in the typically developing children rose during the session with the guinea pigs. The researchers said they believe that these higher readings may indicate excitement at seeing the animals, rather than any nervousness or apprehension.
Lead researcher Dr. Marguerite O’Haire, from the Center for the Human-Animal Bond in the College of Veterinary Medicine of Purdue University in Indiana, added that earlier studies have shown that children with ASDs were less likely to withdraw from social situations when companion animals are present.
These studies, along with the new findings, indicate that animals might “play a part in interventions seeking to help children with autism develop their social skills,” she said.
She cautioned, however, that the findings do not mean that parents of children with ASDs should rush to buy an animal for their children. Further research is needed to determine how animals might be used in programs aimed at developing social skills, she advised.
“Our study was conducted in a supervised setting, by researchers experienced in working with kids with autism spectrum disorders who understand the needs and requirements of the animals,” O’Haire said, adding that careful supervision was provided during the study to ensure the welfare of the children, as well as the animals.
Photo Credit: Marguerite O’Haire, Ph.D., from the Center for the Human-Animal Bond in the College of Veterinary Medicine of Purdue University in West Lafayette, Indiana.