Helping Autistic Children Develop Social Skills Through Pet Therapy

Autistic Children and Pet Therapy

Do you have an autistic child or are you caring for autistic children? Most often, autistic children suffer from problems regarding communication, language development, behavioral patterns and social skills. Most therapies for autism focus on behavioral modification in order to limit unwanted behaviors such a head banging and other self-directed violence. There are also effective managements for language development that help autistic children adapt to the outside world. However, their social skills remain impaired because of the presence of their “own worlds”.

According to a new study, keeping pets in the home can help children with autism develop better social behaviors.

The use of pets has been seen as beneficial for children with autism and has been anecdotally heard over the years. A recent research confirmed the belief that pets can help improve the social development of autistic children.

Many parents already subjectively reported that having pets in their homes had helped their children develop social skills; however, there were no studies to support this claim. The researchers aimed at providing scientific evidence that the use of pets helps autistic children and the results just confirmed the subjective reports of parents.

The Benefits of Pet Therapy in Autism

Social problems are one of the concerns of caregivers of autistic children because they rarely communicate with other people. Service dogs have been used for years for handicapped individuals such as those who have hearing loss and motor coordination; however, they were not previously used for social skills.

In normal individuals, pets improve the family bonding and also improve the social skills of children with no autism. Normal children usually learn skills through sharing with their pets as well as caring, feeding and bathing their pets. Similar to autistic children, this same caring for pets may also help them develop social skills.

The research involved comparing the social interactions of children in three settings. One group of autistic children had pets in their homes since their birth, the second group never had any pets and the third group had pets after the age of 5.

The study involved a total of 260 autistic children. The research focused on identifying the social behaviors of autistic children at age 4 to 5 according to the reports of their parents. The research especially focused on the social interactions during the ages of 4 and 5 because these ages are the peak of social impairments.

The results revealed that children who had pets after birth had better scores in terms of offering comfort and offering to share skills.

The results also revealed that there was no relationship between the impact of pets and the IQ of autistic children, which means that pet therapy is beneficial regardless of the seriousness of autism.

Implications of Pet Therapy in Autism

Pet therapy improves the social skills of autistic children through several mechanisms. First, pets serve as distractors from stress and anxiety. Normally, when people are under stress, caring for pets usually diverts their attention from the stress producing factors. This fact is also true for autistic children.

Another mechanism of pet therapy is that it helps children interpret social signals and cues, which help them adjust their social behaviors.

Having a pet after birth for the autistic child is more beneficial because the arrival of the new pet strengthens family bonding compared to having the pet before the arrival of the child. The new mood that the pet produces helps families to have better family dynamics.

However, not all studies support the positive benefits of pets because one study involving pet therapy for autistic children revealed that separation of the pet from the autistic child led to more anxiety and stress.

Nevertheless, caregivers of autistic children should consider having pets in the home. However, make sure that children are safe and prevent accidental biting and injuries from pets.

Posted by Paula Wein

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