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For Children with Autism, 6th Birthday Gift is a Pet

Children with autism and pets

If you have a child with autism and you're wondering what to get as his or her 6th birthday gift, a pet may be the answer. A pet could be the birthday gift that keeps on giving in important ways for many years, according to a new study.

Pets can help build social skills

One of the hallmark signs of autism spectrum disorder is social impairment, in which children have great difficulty relating to other people. Among the social deficits shown by children with autism are an inability to

  • start a conversation
  • interpret or decode body language or facial expressions
  • mimic appropriate social behavior
  • initiate or participate in social activities with their peers
  • understand the emotions of other people

As a result, children with autism withdraw from their families and society, not because they want to but because they lack the skills necessary to develop meaningful relationships with others. That's where pets may enter the picture and, according to a new study, timing is important.

According to a French research team led by Marine Grandgeorge, PhD, of the Centre Hospitalier Regional Universitaire de Brest, children with autism who were given a cuddly pet--dog, cat, rabbit, or hamster--after their fifth birthday showed improvement in two important social skill areas.

In contrast, children with autism who had shared the first five years of their life with a pet displayed these social skills at a level similar to those of autistic children without pets. Here's how the researchers arrived at their conclusions.

The investigators conducted two separate analyses and selected the children from a pool of 260 who had autism spectrum disorder. In the first analysis the authors matched 12 children who did not have a pet before age 4 or 5 but who were given a pet after their fifth birthday with 12 children who had always been pet-less. At the time of evaluation, the average age of the children was 10.8 years (range, 7-15).

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The second analysis involved matching 8 children who had grown up with a pet since birth with 8 children who had always been without a pet. The average age at evaluation was 11.1 years (range, 6-16).

All the children underwent two evaluations, which included an assessment of social interactions, verbal communication, nonverbal communication, and stereotyped behaviors and restricted interests. Parents were also asked questions about how their child interacted with the pet.

The authors found that:

  • Children who got a pet after their fifth birthday improved in two of the 36 items on the Autism Diagnostic Interview-Revised (ADI-R) test: "offering to share" and "offering comfort." These improvements were not seen in children who had had a pet since birth or who never had a pet.
  • Children who got a pet after age 5 had more tactile (e.g., petting, stroking, hugging) and visual interactions with the pets

The authors pointed out that "Pets are supposed to enhance different skills in children with typical development, such as self-esteem, socio-emotional development, and empathy," and that "children with typical development seem to learn prosocial behaviors through their interactions with pets."

It's already been shown that children who are assigned a service dog (an autism assistance dog) show significant improvement in social, language, and behavioral skills. Organizations such as Dogs for Autism, 4 Paws for Ability, and Autism Service Dogs of America, among others, provide these critically helpful companions.

However, not every child with autism needs an autism assistance dog. For children with autism, perhaps a cuddly pet around the 6th birthday could be a gift that lasts a very long time.

Grandgeorge M et al. Does pet arrival trigger prosocial behaviors in individuals with autism? PLoS One 2012; DOI:10.1371/journal.pone.0041739

Image: Morguefile