A new study suggests that not only having pet dogs in the home, but also living with cats, rabbits and other animals as pets may help children with autism improve their social skills.

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New research suggests living with any kind of pet is linked to increased social skills in children with autism.

Previous studies show that pets encourage social interaction, and there have been reports of dogs helping children with autism develop their social skills. But before this new study, from a researcher the University of Missouri (MU), nobody had shown this might also true of other types of pet.

Dr. Gretchen Carlisle, research fellow in the MU College of Veterinary Medicine’s Research Center for Human-Animal Interaction (ReCHAI), says when pets are present in the home, the classroom, or other social setting, children tend to interact and talk to each other more.

The pets serve as “social lubricants,” she explains, noting that this increase in social interaction when pets are around also appears to be true of children with autism. This could account for the increased assertiveness she found in autistic children who had pets living at home.

“Kids with autism don’t always readily engage with others,” says Dr. Carlisle, “but if there’s a pet in the home that the child is bonded with and a visitor starts asking about the pet, the child may be more likely to respond.”

For the study, Dr. Carlisle surveyed parents of autistic patients attending the MU Thompson Center for Autism and Neurodevelopmental Disorders. Altogether, she surveyed 70 families, with patients ranging in age from 8 to 18 years.

Nearly 70% of the families had dogs and around 50% had cats. Smaller proportions also had other pets, including farm animals, reptiles, rodents, rabbits, fish, a bird and even a spider.

Dr. Carlisle compared the survey results with assessments of the children’s social skills and found those who lived with dogs appeared to have greater social skills.

She also found the longer the children had lived with a dog at home, the better their social skills. And it seems the strongest bonds were with smaller dogs.

But the results also showed links between greater social skills and living with any kind of pet – not just dogs, as Dr. Carlisle comments:

More significantly, however, the data revealed that children with any kind of pet in the home reported being more likely to engage in behaviors such as introducing themselves, asking for information or responding to other people’s questions.”

“These kinds of social skills typically are difficult for kids with autism,” she adds, “but this study showed children’s assertiveness was greater if they lived with a pet.”

The study suggests we shouldn’t assume that dogs are the only home pets that can help children with autism, as Dr. Carlisle explains:

“Kids with autism are highly individual and unique, so some other animals may provide just as much benefit as dogs.”

“Though parents may assume having dogs are best to help their children, my data show greater social skills for children with autism who live in homes with any type of pet,” she adds.

Meanwhile, Medical News Today recently reported how a study led by Stanford School of Medicine uncovered a molecular map of autism-related genes. While previous research has found several genes tied to autism, the new discovery shows how some of them belong to a network. The researchers hope it will help find new autism-related genes.