There's just something about pets that makes people kinder. For instance, scientists have shown that people are more likely to have pleasant social interactions when walking a dog than when walking alone. So researchers from the University of Queensland in Australia decided to see how pets could affect children living with autism spectrum disorder, a condition now affecting up to 1 in 91 children.
With rising autism rates, the medical field is scrambling to figure out not only what causes autism, but also how to ease symptoms in children already living with the condition.
The February 2013 study, published in the journal PLoS One found that 5- to 13-year-old children with autism were much more social with adults and other children when pets were brought into the mix.
This experiment used guinea pigs and found that children with autism showed better social behavior when pets were brought into the mix instead of toys. The kids were more talkative and looked into people's eyes more, and others were more likely to engage with the autistic children, when pets were around. The children also smiled and laughed more—and whined, frowned, and cried less—when the guinea pigs were around instead of toys.
Pets have long been known to have an effect like a social lubricant, normalizing the situation and serving as a conversation starter, the authors write in the paper. Animals aid children with autism in other ways, too. Previous research found having a pet in the home helps autistic children become more empathetic and better identify with others.
The authors notes that having an animal not just in the home, but also in therapy sessions or the classroom, may help ease some behavioral symptoms that children with autism often exhibit.