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Presence of Animals Makes Autistic Children More Sociable

Update Date: Feb 28, 2013 12:16 PM EST

Exposure to animals can significantly increase positive social behaviors in autistic children, according to a new study.

Researcher Marguerite E O'Haire and colleagues from the University of Queensland, Australia, compared how autistic children between the ages of five and 13 interacted with adults in peers in the presence of two guinea pigs compared to toys.

The findings, published in the journal PLOS ONE, revealed that in the presence of the guinea pigs, autistic children demonstrated more social behaviors like talking, looking at faces and making physical contact.  Researchers added that children with autism spectrum disorders (ASD) were also more receptive to social advances from their peers in the presence of the guinea pigs than they were when playing with toys.  Researchers said that exposure to animals also significantly increased instances of smiling and laughing, and reduced frowning, whining and crying behaviors in autistic children than having toys did.

Past research has shown that people are more likely to receive overtures of friendship from stranger when walking a dog than when walking alone. Similar effects were seen in people holding smaller animals like rabbits or turtles.  Researchers say that past findings suggest that this "social lubricant" effect of animals on human social interactions can be helpful for individuals with socio-emotional disabilities.

Researchers said that animals could help autistic children connect with adults by fostering interactions with therapists, teachers or other adult figures.  Researchers noted that animal-assisted interventions could also be useful in the classroom.

"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," researchers explained.

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