Having a pet 'helps autistic children to develop their social skills'
Bringing an animal into the home could strengthen family bonds, say researchers
11:59 GMT, 2 August 2012
Children with autism can improve their social skills if they have a pet to play with after they turn five.
Researchers found youngsters with the developmental disorder were better able to both offer comfort and share things if they had a furry friend, while those who never had a pet showed no improvements.
However, this effect wasn't seen in autistic youngsters who had pets in the family from birth, according to the team from the Hospital Research Centre of Brest in France.
A pet could help children learn how to share and show empathy (posed)
The researchers said this could be because a pet brought in later could have novelty value, whilst also strengthening family bonds by increasing their interaction with each other.
Dr Marine Grandgeorge and colleagues performed two studies, which have been published in the open access journal PLOS ONE.
In the first they analysed 24 autistic children with an average age of 11 who were attended a daycare in France.
A dozen had received a dog, cat or rabbit after turning five while the rest had never had a pet.
The children's parents had completed a survey commonly used to diagnose autism when the children were five, and filled it in again at the
time of the study. They also answered a questionnaire about their pets.
The results revealed that the children with pets were better able to share food or toys with their parents or other children and also improved in offering comfort to those who were sad or hurt.
However, no such improvement was seen in a second study that compared eight children who had pets in the family from birth and eight who had no pets.
The scientists said children spent time playing and petting an animal if they got one when they were young, while those who had always had a pet in the family showed fewer interactions.
They noted that other research has found pets enhance skills in children with typical development, including improving self-esteem and empathy.