Humans first domesticated animals to help with the housework, from herding cattle to killing mice. Now, we keep pets mainly for companionship, but new research offers further proof that animals can also have a therapeutic effect.

Researchers from the University of Queensland in Australia explored how animals can help autistic children socialize in the classroom. They found that autistic kids showed more pro-social behavior toward other children during unstructured playtime with animals present. 

Autism is a group of developmental disorders characterized by impaired communication and social skills. Symptoms typically appear by the age of three. Autism affects about one in 91 children in the U.S.

Socializing is often the biggest challenge for autistic children. In the classroom, they may struggle to engage with their peers, which can lead to isolation, rejection, bullying, and other stressful interactions.

How Animals Help Autistic Children in the Classroom

Previous research has shown that interacting with animals can help autistic children, but the Australian researchers were the first to use blind ratings when comparing animal interaction to playing with toys, another common tool used to help autistic children interact with their peers.

Researchers compared how well children ages five to 13 interacted with adults and their “typically-developing peers” during free time. One group was given toys to play with while the other was placed in a room with two hamsters. 

The autistic children who played with the hamsters showed more sociability by talking, smiling, laughing, looking at faces, and making physical contact with others. The children with the hamsters were also less likely to frown, whine, cry, and express other negative behavior than those who played with toys.

For children with an autism spectrum disorder, or 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,” the researchers said in a press release. 

The Australian study appears in the latest issue of PLOS ONE.

Animals and Autism

The bond between man and animal goes back centuries. Using animals in therapy dates back as far as the 18th century. While research shows that contact with animals can reduce stress, some animals go beyond mere cuddling to assist their owners.

Clark Pappas is the director of participant programs for Canine Companions for Independence (CCI), a nonprofit organization that trains companion dogs for people with disabilities. They’ve been training service dogs to help autistic children for 20 years.

At CCI, golden and Labrador retrievers are trained to assist their owners in a variety of situations, including helping autistic children in the classroom.

Pappas and others at CCI have found that dogs are helpful in many scenarios, especially for aiding parents when they leave the house. Because some autistic children are reluctant to leave their parent's side, simply having the child hang onto the dog makes taking trips and running errands easier. 

“It enables a sense of calm to exist when the parents and kids are able to go out,” Pappas said.

For those who qualify for a companion animal, the results may not be immediate, but they can last forever. Pappas said that over the typical 10-year lifespan of a guide dog, children with autism may see the same level of social development as those without the disorder.

“In general, it’s rare to see something profound right off the bat, but over time, there’s a profound effect,” he said.

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