Unconditional Affection

For children with autism, a furry friend may be just the ticket.

Kids love dogs, and dogs love them right back. This set of relations, a new MU study suggests, is especially true for children with autism.

“Children with autism spectrum disorders often struggle with interacting with others, which can make it difficult for them to form friendships,” says the study’s author, Gretchen Carlisle, a research fellow at the University’s Research Center for Human-Animal Interaction. “Children with autism may especially benefit from interacting with dogs, which can provide unconditional, nonjudgmental love and companionship.”

Carlisle’s findings should provide reassurance for parents of autistic children who fear that taking on a companion animal could be disruptive. In fact, Carlisle says, dog ownership can be a great way for autistic kids to reduce stress, learn responsibility and even feel more comfortable hanging out with other children.

Think of that pup as a shaggy social lubricant. “If the children with autism invite their peers to play with their dogs, then the dogs can serve as bridges that help the children with autism communicate with their peers,” she says.

The study, published earlier this year in the Journal of Pediatric Nursing, involved interviews with 70 parents whose children were patients at MU’s Thompson Center for Autism and Neurodevelopmental Disorders. Nearly two-thirds of parents in the study said they owned dogs. Among those parents, 94 percent reported that their children with autism had bonded with them. In families without dogs, Carlisle found, 70 percent of parents said that their children with autism liked dogs.

Carlisle’s work is the latest in a long line of MU research findings supporting the benefits of companion-animal ownership, much of it pioneered by Rebecca Johnson, an MU professor of veterinary medicine who also serves as Millsap Professor of Gerontological Nursing in the Sinclair School of Nursing. “[Carlisle’s] research adds scientific credibility to the benefits of human-animal interaction,” Johnson says. “It helps us understand the role of companion animals in improving the lives of children with autism, and helps health professionals learn how to best guide families in choosing pets for their families.”

Potential benefits notwithstanding, seeking guidance when choosing a pet is indeed a good idea, Carlisle says. This is especially true when it comes to dogs. “Bringing a dog into any family is a big step, but for families of children with autism, getting a dog should be a decision that’s taken very seriously,” she says. “If a child with autism is sensitive to loud noises, choosing a dog that is likely to bark will not provide the best match for the child and the family. If the child has touch sensitivities, perhaps a dog with a softer coat, such as a poodle, would be better than a dog with a wiry or rough coat, such as a terrier.”

One way for parents to ensure a good fit, she adds, is getting their kids involved.

“Many children with autism know the qualities they want in a dog,” Carlisle says. “If parents could involve their kids in choosing dogs for their families, it may be more likely the children will have positive experiences.”

It’s even possible, Carlisle cautions, that a dog might not be the best choice. “Dogs may be best for some families, although other pets such as cats, horses or rabbits might be better suited to other children with autism and their particular sensitivities and interests.”

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