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Pets Could Help Kids With Autism Develop Social Skills

Update Date: Aug 02, 2012 10:31 AM EDT

Pets are great companions and now, a new French research has found that having a pet in the home of an autistic child may help that child develop improved social behaviors.

The study reveals that in individuals with autism, pet arrival in the family setting may bring about changes in specific aspects of their socio-emotional development. It suggests the improvement of some prosocial behaviors in such individuals under certain circumstances.

Researchers say this is first strong scientific evidence that animals may help foster social skills in individuals with autism.

"We hear from parents a lot that having a pet or interacting with an animal really helps their child's social behavior, but there hasn't been a study so far that has looked at that scientifically," said Alycia Halladay, director of environmental research at Autism Speaks. "This offers some intriguing evidence to confirm what parents have been saying."

Autism now affects 1 in 88 children and 1 in 54 boys and is estimated to cost the nation $137 billion per year.

Researchers say individuals with autism have difficulty interacting with others as well as using and interpreting nonverbal communication. Individuals with autism appear to have problems recognizing, understanding and expressing both feelings and intentions.

The study was published online Aug. 1 in the journal PLoS ONE.

Researchers studied 260 children with autism. Evaluation of social impairment was assessed at two time periods using the 36 measures and a parental questionnaire about their child-pet relationships. The results showed autistic children who got a pet after they were born showed prosocial behaviors, offering to share and offering comfort.

"The interactions between individuals with autism and their pets were more - qualitatively and quantitatively - reported in the situation of pet arrival than pet presence since birth," the authors wrote. "These findings open further lines of research on the impact of pet's presence or arrival in families with an individual with autism. Given the potential ability of individuals with autism to develop prosocial behaviors, related studies are needed to better understand the mechanisms involved in the development of such child-pet relationship."

Researchers say that the arrival of a pet may have triggered a change in the individuals' "perception of the social world".

"Pets are supposed to enhance different skills in children with typical development such as self-esteem, socio-emotional development and empathy," the authors wrote.

Past research has noted children with typical development seem to learn prosocial behaviors through their interactions with pets, e.g. sharing with and stroking the pet.

Researchers say the study has limitations because of the small sample which did not allow them to clarify the exact role of pets in the families who already owned pets.

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