Parents of children with autism see dogs as a key way to improve companionship, relieve stress and help their children to learn responsibility, according to a US study.
Gretchen Carlisle, a research fellow at the Research Center for Human-Animal Interaction in the Missouri University College of Veterinary Medicine interviewed 70 parents of children with autism and found that 94% of those children who owned a dog were bonded to their pets
"Children with autism spectrum disorders often struggle with interacting with others, which can make it difficult for them to form friendships," said Carlisle. "Children with autism may especially benefit from interacting with dogs, which can provide unconditional, non-judgmental love and companionship to the children."
Even in families without dogs, 70% of parents said their children liked dogs. Many dog-owning parents also said they specifically chose to get dogs because of the perceived benefits to their children.
“Dogs can help children with autism by acting as a social lubricant,” Carlisle added. “For example, children with autism may find it difficult to interact with other neighbourhood children. If the children with autism invite their peers to play with their dogs, then the dogs can serve as bridges that help the children with autism communicate with their peers.
“Bringing a dog into any family is a big step, but for families of children with autism, getting a dog should be a decision that’s taken very seriously,” Carlisle said. “If a child with autism is sensitive to loud noises, choosing a dog that is likely to bark will not provide the best match for the child and the family. If the child has touch sensitivities, perhaps a dog with a softer coat, such as a poodle, would be better than a dog with a wiry or rough coat, such as a terrier.”
Carlisle recommends parents involve their children with autism when choosing a dog. Although her study only addressed dog ownership among families affected by autism, Carlisle said dogs might not be the best pet for every child with autism adding that "not all children with autism have the same sensitivities and interests".
The research adds further weight to scientific evidence of the benefits of human-animal interaction and Carlisle hopes it will help health professionals learn how to best guide families in choosing pets for their families.