Animals help children with autism spectrum disorders (ASD) interact better; they show increased positive social behaviors when an animal is present.

The finding came from a new study by researchers, led by Marguerite E O’Haire, from the University of Queesland, Australia and was published in the journal PLOS ONE.

Kids between the ages of five and thirteen with ASD were involved in the investigation. The experts analyzed their interaction with adults and with peers who were developing normally, while two guinea pigs were present. The interactions were compared a second time with toys instead of the guinea pigs.

According to the results, when the animals were present, the kids with ASD displayed more social behaviors such as:

  • talking
  • making physical contact
  • looking at faces

Compared to when they were playing with toys, the kids with ASD were more receptive to social advances from their peers when the animals were in sight.

The children laughed and smiled more when the animals were present compared to the toys, and also reduced behaviors of:

  • frowning
  • whining
  • crying

Prior research has indicated that people have a higher probability of receiving overtures of friendship from strangers when taking a dog for a walk as opposed to when they walk unaccompanied.

Comparable outcomes have also been examined for individuals who have smaller animals, such as rabbits or turtles with them.

This ‘social lubricant’ effect of animals on human social interactions may be especially critical for people with socio-emotional disabilities, according to the researchers.

The capability of the animals to assist boys and girls with ASD communicate with adults may also be used to help them interact with teachers, therapists, and other adults in their life.

Animal-assisted interventions may also benefit the classroom dynamics as well, the scientists said.

The authors concluded:

“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.”

There have been several studies over the last week on ASDs. One published in BMC Medicine demonstrated that autistic kids have a structural difference in brain connections than those without the disorder, while another found that five major psychiatric disorders, including autism spectrum disorders, share genetic links.

Written by Sarah Glynn