Study Touts Benefits Dogs Give to Autistic Children

Nearly 37 percent of American households have at least one dog, according to a 2012 American Veterinary Medical Association study. Many of these households have children and these children bond with the family pet, forming attachments that help them develop into socially responsible, empathetic adults. Children also develop nurturing skills when assigned tasks related to the family pet’s care. Is this dynamic found in households with children on the autism spectrum?  Dr. Gretchen Carisle at the University of Missouri, building on studies that found dog ownership is linked to greater social skills in children, conducted a study to learn more about the role dogs played in families that have a child with autism spectrum disorder.

Children on the spectrum have difficulty establishing social relationships

A deficit in the ability to process social information, to read facial expressions and understand human body language, is a hallmark of autism. When autistic children interact with their peers, their cortisol levels rise, an indication of increased stress. When these same children interact with dogs, cortisol levels decrease. Researchers propose that dogs have a calming effect on these children because dogs lack the facial features and complex body language of humans.

Carlisle tells Autism Speaks, “Children with autism may especially benefit from interacting with dogs, which can provide unconditional, nonjudgmental love and companionship.” Carlisle compared the social skills of autistic children who live with dogs to those who did not. She found those with dogs appeared to have stronger social skills.

What parents say about the relationship between the family pet and their autistic child

Carlisle surveyed 70 parents, all dog owners who have children on the spectrum. She eliminated households in which the children had little or no interaction with the dogs. Nearly all parents claimed their child had bonded with the pet, and they believe the child-dog relationship reaped many benefits.

Some said the dog helped their child settle down when in an agitated state. Others believed pet ownership helped their children develop a sense of responsibility and taught them how to look after someone other than themselves. Others believed their children could better express themselves with a pet than with other people. Kara Reagon, a behavior analyst with Autim Speaks, says, “Pets may serve as social catalysts. When pets are present in social settings or a classroom, individuals with autism may initiate and engage more with others.”

A trained assistance dog can help a child overwhelmed by sensory input

Project Chance, a Florida-based non-profit, provides service dogs to autistic children. In addition to helping children with social skills, trained assistance dogs can serve as protectors and comforters. Many who are on the spectrum have little understanding of personal safety and may wander off into dangerous situations. Autistic children tend to have heightened senses, and may lose control when overwhelmed with sounds, smells and the activity found in crowded public places. A trained service dog provides a stable presence for the child and can prevent him or her from running off.

Dog ownership isn’t for everyone. Some children may be fearful of dogs and unable to form a bond. Dogs do require care, and for a family already dealing with a special needs child, a dog may be too much of a burden. Although Carlisle’s study focused on dogs, other pets may provide the same benefits. Each family needs to assess their own situation to determine if man’s best friend can also be their autistic child’s best friend.

For more information:  

The following organizations provide information and support for families dealing with ASD.

Autism Speaks

Founded in 2005, Autism Speaks is an advocacy organization that offers information and resources for people with autism and their families.

The Autism Society

The Autism Society’s network of local affiliates provides community-centered advocacy and services. A professional staff is available to answer questions and provide referrals. The organization maintains a comprehensive database of autism services and holds an annual conference that brings together parents of children with ASD to discuss the current issues and share resources.

Project Chance

Provides service dogs to autistic children. Their website provides information for families considering a dog for their autistic child.