Can Pets Help Children with Autism?

Eileen Bailey Health Guide
  • Autism spectrum disorders (ASD) have difficulties with social interactions and communication. While some children, more severely impacted, have cognitive impairment, not all children with ASD have these types of impairments. Those with Asperger’s syndrome or high functioning autism often have high intelligence levels but lack the skills to effectively communicate and interact with others.


    Improvement in Offering to Share and Offering Comfort

    According to a recent study, published on PLOS ONE, bringing a pet into the home improved two specific areas of prosocial behavior: offering to share and offering comfort, although improvement in other social areas were not seen. Interestingly, the study showed that when a pet was in the home from the time the child was a baby, these two areas did not show the same type of improvement as those who received a pet later. The authors of this study accept that the results are not definitive and further research is needed to understand how pets and whether adding a pet after the age of 5 is beneficial to children with ASD. They accept that their sample size was small and therefore do not necessarily provide specific answers to the question of whether a pet will help children with ASD.

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    Stress Reduction and Learning about Feelings and Needs

    Previous studies have also shown that animals, specifically service or assistance dogs, can have positive benefits on children with ASD. USA Today lists two studies:

    • A study completed in 2004 showing that service dogs helped children with ASD learn about living beings, feelings and needs
    • A 2010 study looked at how the stress hormone cortisol was reduced when children were given a service dog. Researchers noted that besides the physical reduction of cortisol, the number of disruptive behavioral incidents also decreased

    There is also a great deal of incidental information, parents and therapists who talk about how a child’s life was turned around after receiving a pet. For some, children with difficulty communicating with words, talking to the pet may help – after all a pet doesn’t care if you say it exactly right or if you take several tries to get your thoughts across. The internet has dozens of these stories, how a child learned to empathize because of his interactions with a pet.


    Is a Pet Right for Your Child?

    No matter what the research  says, each family needs to decide if a pet is right. Children with more aggressive tendencies may not be a good match. Children with hypersensitivity issues may have a hard time with a dog’s wet nose or a cat rubbing against their leg. If you aren’t sure if having a pet in your home is a good idea, you might want to start with animal-assisted therapies. Horseback riding, or hippotherapy, can help with sensory issues and communication.


    There are some organizations, such as North Star Dogs, who train dogs to specifically work with children with autism. Rather than choosing a pet from the local shelter, your child might be better served with a dog trained to help him with his specific needs.


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    Research studies will continue to look at the benefits of pets for children with ASD, but in the meantime, you will need to look at your own family situation and decide if a pet is the right way to go.




    “Autistic Kids Can Connect with Animals,” 2011m Feb 14, USA Today


    “Does Pet Arrival Trigger Prosocial Behaviors in Individuals with Autism?” 2012, Aug 1, Marine Grandgeorge et al, PLOS ONE

Published On: September 25, 2012