Pets may trigger ‘prosocial’ behavior in autistic children

Autistic children show improvements in certain aspects of prosocial behavior after the introduction of pets into the family home, researchers report.

Marine Grandgeorge (Centres Hospitaliers Régionaux et Universitaires de Brest, Bohars, France) and team found that the introduction of family pets resulted in improvements in sharing and comforting behavior among autistic children.

"To our knowledge, this is the first study showing an association between pet arrival and changes in prosocial behaviors," say the researchers, who add that the findings follow "human-pet reports on the improvement of prosocial behaviors in individuals with typical development."

The team studied two groups of autistic children comprising 12 who had acquired a family pet (mainly a dog or cat) after the age of 5 years and eight who had owned a family pet since birth.

The children, along with two groups of age-, gender-, and language level-matched autistic controls who had never owned pets, were assessed using the Autism Diagnostic Interview-Revised (ADI-R) at the age of 4‑5 years and again at an average age of 10 years.

The researchers found that children who acquired a family pet after the age of 5 years showed significant improvements compared with controls in scores for two of the 36 ADI-R items, namely "offering to share," eg, sharing food or toys with parents or other children, and "offering comfort," eg, reassuring parents or peers who were sad or hurt.

"Interestingly, these two items reflect prosocial behaviors," comments the team in PLoS One.

However, there were no significant differences between children who acquired a family pet after the age of 5 years and controls regarding changes in total ADI-R scores, or subscores in the main four domains (reciprocal social interaction, verbal communication, nonverbal communication, and restricted and repetitive behaviors).

There were also no significant differences between autistic children who had owned a pet since birth and controls regarding changes on ADI-R total, subscale, or item scores over the study period.

Grandgeorge and colleagues conclude: "This 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."

They add that "these first results open interesting lines of research exploring the efficacy of animals employed in animal-assisted therapy settings. Further studies with larger sample sizes (eg, including more control groups) are needed to clarify the exact role of pets in this context."

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