Autistic Children Happier and Better Behaved in Presence of Animals


SAUSALITO, CA (ASRN.ORG) -- Animals and humans have long enjoyed an amicable relationship with one another. For whatever reason, it seems as if we generally enjoy one another’s company. Various animals have been found to bring comfort to the sick and even lower blood pressure. Now, a new study has found that animals can have yet another positive influence on humans, particularly children with autism. According to research conducted by psychology researcher Marguerite E. O’Haire of the University of Queensland, children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) become happier and more well behaved when animals are present.

O’Haire and her colleagues studied the effects of animals on 5 to 13-year-old children with ASD and found that these children were not only better behaved with animals around but were also more receptive to adult interaction. The researchers used guinea pigs in this study and observed the children’s social behavior when in the presence of these animals. The researchers then replaced the guinea pigs with small toys and observed the reaction.

The difference, they report in the online journal PLOS ONE, was remarkable. When the guinea pigs were nearby, the children with ASD were more talkative and willing to interact with adults and their peers. These children were also much more expressive, looking into each other’s faces and even reaching out to touch them. The researchers stated that the guinea pigs “increased instances of smiling and laughing, and reduced frowning, whining and crying behaviors.” The children were even more likely to let other adults and peers approach them when the animals were nearby. The researchers did not note the same behaviors when the children were given small toys.

O’Haire and her team observed a total of 99 children from 15 classrooms in four schools. These children were split into groups of three: One child with ASD along with two “typically-developing peers.” These groups were observed for ten minutes while playing with small toys, and then again while playing with the two guinea pigs. Two of the observers were blindfolded to ensure the most accurate results and coded the children’s behavior during each of the ten-minute sessions.

The researchers say they were not entirely surprised by these results. It’s a commonly observed trait of human behavior: When someone is in the presence of an animal, their mood changes and they become more likely to talk to strangers. There’s no better place to observe this behavior than at a park or zoo. Dog walkers in particular are notorious for striking up conversations with strangers about their pets. Numerous studies have shown that all kinds of animals, not only dogs, are generally a good “social lubricant.” Even humans carrying around rabbits and turtles were found to receive more gestures of familiarity and friendship than when walking alone.

O’Haire suggests it’s this kind of warmth towards animals that is responsible for the improved behaviors of children with ASD. With this knowledge, parents, teachers and therapists may be able to reduce the stress of particularly troublesome situations for these children by simply introducing a small animal. By making these situations easier, parents, therapists and educators will have a better opportunity to work and connect with these children.


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