By Kiki Bochi
The unconditional acceptance of an animal can have amazing power. People with pets already know this. But now there is scientific proof of just how positive pets can be.
A small study at the University of Queensland in Australia found that the presence of an animal can significantly increase good social behaviors among children with autism spectrum disorders (ASD).
The study compared how children with ASD interacted with adults and their typically-developing peers when in the presence of two guinea pigs, compared to how they behaved in a room full of toys. They found that when in the presence of animals, children with ASD demonstrated more social behaviors like talking, looking at faces and making physical contact. The presence of animals also increased instances of smiling and laughing, and reduced frowning, whining and crying behaviors. What’s more, the children with ASD were more receptive to social advances from their peers in the presence of the animals than they were when playing with toys.Do pets make us better people? That’s unclear, but past studies have shown that people are more likely to receive overtures of friendship from strangers when walking a dog than when walking alone, and similar effects have been observed for people holding smaller animals like rabbits or turtles. The authors suggest that this “social lubricant” effect of animals on human social interactions can be particularly important for individuals with socio-emotional disabilities such as autism.
According to the reasearchers, the ability of an animal to help children with ASD connect to adults may help foster interactions with therapists, teachers or other adult figures. They add that animal-assisted interventions may have applications in the classroom as well.