By: MyHealthNewsDaily Staff
Published: 08/01/2012 05:07 PM EDT on MyHealthNewsDaily

Getting a pet may help children with autism to develop their social skills, if the furry friend is brought into the home when the child is about 5 years old, according to a new French study.

Researchers found that children with autism who got a pet after age 5 showed improvement in their abilities to share with others and to offer comfort, whereas those who had a pet since they were born, and those who never had a pet, showed no such improvement.

"In individuals with autism, pet arrival in the family setting may bring about changes in specific aspects of their socio-emotional development," the researchers wrote in their study.

However, the study was small, and little is known about how pets may influence family dynamics and children's development, so further studies are needed, the researchers said.

Animals and social skills

About one in 88 U.S. children are diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Autism can cause language delays, problems with social and communication skills and repetitive behaviors.

In the new study, researchers led by Marine Grandgeorge, of the Autism Resource Center at Hospital Bohars in France, looked at autistic children between ages 6 and 16 who were all attending a day-care facility in France.

The children's parents had completed a commonly used autism diagnostic test when the children were 4 or 5, and they completed it again at the time of the study. They also answered a questionnaire about their pets.

In one analysis, the researchers compared the social behaviors of 12 children with autism from families that got a pet after the child turned 5, with the behaviors of 12 autistic children who never owned a pet, but were matched with the pet owners for age, gender and general language abilities.

Results showed that those who got a pet, over time, showed fewer deficits in their abilities to share food or toys with their parents or other children, while those who never owned pets didn't show such an improvement. Additionally, those with pets also became better at offering comfort to parents or children who were sad or hurt, according to the study. The type of pet didn’t matter (although all the pets in the study were dogs, cats or hamsters), and neither did the child's gender.

In a separate analysis, the researchers compared eight children with autism who had a pet in their home since birth, with eight similar children who never owned a pet. They found that those who'd had pets  their entire lives were no different than those without pets, in terms of how their social skills changed over time.

Additionally, the study showed that children who got a pet when they were young tended to interact with the animal, spending time petting it and playing with it. In contrast, those with pets since birth showed far fewer of these interactions.

The researchers noted that there were many social behaviors for which there was no improvement in the children who got a pet at a young age. The test they used, aside from measuring children's abilities to share and comfort others, also assessed behaviors such as social smiling, imaginative play with peers, and the ability to engage in a reciprocal conversation.

Why pets may help kids with autism

Pets can directly influence human behaviors. "When a human and a pet are interacting, each partner uses signals emitted by the other to adjust their behavior," the researchers wrote. Pets can also promote interactions between family members, which can promote a child's development.  

But further explanation is needed to explain why the differences were seen between children with pets since birth and those who got them at a young age. It might be expected that the longer a child had a pet, they more benefited, but that's not what was seen, the researchers said.

It may be that the novelty of a new pet is particularly appealing to children with autism, or it could be that a new pet strengthens the family's bonds, and increases interactions between family members, they said.

The findings are published online today (Aug. 1) in the journal PLoS ONE.

Pass it on: A new pet may help autistic children develop better social skills.

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    This might seem cliché, but pet owners know it's not. Pets love you as much when you're sad or tired as they do when you're having a great day. And the style of love we learn from pets -- warm, generous, active, loyal -- is eminently transferable.

  • Silence Is Golden

    Pets teach kids that meaningful experiences don't always need to involve conversation. A quiet afternoon with a playful cat or lazy puppy shows children that there's more to relationships than words: just being together -- watching, listening, and caring for another person or animal -- can mean an awful lot.

  • Keep Yourself Clean

    We're not suggesting that all household animals are pristine -- far from it. (Indeed, with many pets, the question isn't whether or not the animal smells, but what, exactly, the animal smells <em>like</em>. Seafood? Garbage? Stinky feet? Mold?) Mysterious perfumes notwithstanding, most animals do make an effort to preen or groom themselves regularly. We have to hope kids get the message that it's good to at least <em>want</em> to look your best.

  • ... But Don't Be Afraid To Get Dirty

    For people with furry pets, leaving the house without sporting a single animal hair -- or, more realistically, a substantial coating of the stuff -- is pretty much an impossible dream. And more often than not, getting out of the house with <em>only</em> hair on your clothes is a break; loving pets with dirty paws or slobbery lips are hard to turn away. Having affectionate but messy animals around teaches you to stop worrying about being perfect and just let things go.

  • Responsibility

    As Lindsay Cross wrote in <a href="http://mommyish.com/childrearing/newsflash-pets-dont-just-help-social-skills-they-teach-responsibility-458/" target="_hplink">a blog post on Mommyish</a>, one of the most obvious lessons kids learn from having pets is responsibility. Cross writes: "Having two dogs to take care of has taught my daughter an amazing amount of responsibility that I might never have been able to instill this early on." Parents who succeed in getting their children to take on key pet-rearing tasks will teach their children the importance of reliability (oh yeah, and get out of feeding the dog every once in a while).

  • Befriend People, Even If They're Shy

    "Dogs know if you're scared of them" -- we've all heard that before. Whether or not there's science to back it up, to pet owners -- and certainly, to people who are actually afraid of dogs -- it certainly seems true. It's also true that pets often win over so-called "scaredy-cats," if given enough time. The lesson from this is clear: Look out for people who feel uncomfortable (new kids at school, for instance), and show them that you think they're worth getting to know.

  • Curiosity & Enthusiasm Are Attractive

    Dogs and cats are curious about the world around them. (Sometimes <em>too</em> curious.) Sure, it's not always a good thing -- but would you rather your kid grew up to idolize teenage nonchalance, or the boundless curiosity and enthusiasm of the family pet?

  • Neatness

    Household pets are curious consumers; if you drop something on the floor (or leave it too close to the end of the table), they'll likely help themselves. While most human foods won't do your pet much harm, some things are very bad for cats or dogs -- and outright inedible objects, like plastic toys, can be extremely dangerous. When the health of a beloved pet is at stake, you're more likely to keep an eye on stray food and out-of-place items; kids who learn this lesson early in life will be way ahead of their more careless peers.

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  • "She has learned to share food and how to pet nicely." - Sarah K. Hudson

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  • "We refer to Carver as "the dog whisperer". Having a dog has taught him to share (especially at dinner time)!" - Sadie Wright Knott

  • "How to love unconditionally." - Sarah Wilson

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