HealthDay News — Getting a pet may help people with autism improve their social skills, results of a small study suggest.

Children with autism who got a pet after the age of 5 years experienced improvements in two prosocial behaviors, offering to share and offering comfort (P<0.0014 for both), Marine Grandgeorge, PhD, of the Centre Hospitalier Regional Universitaire de Brest in France, and colleagues reported in PLoS One.

However, children with autism who had had a pet since birth showed no improvements compared with peers who did not have pets, the researchers found.

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“Given the potential ability of individuals with autism to develop prosocial behaviors, related studies are needed to better understand the mechanisms involved in the development of such child-pet relationships,” they wrote.

To explore the relationship between pets in the home and the social behaviors of children with autism, Grandgeorge and colleagues enrolled 260 individuals with autism and divided them into two groups of 12 and two groups of eight. Each group was assigned to one of two studies.

In study one, the effects of a pet arrival after age 5  were compared with having no pet among two groups matched by age, sex, language ability, and history of epilepsy. The average age at the time of assessment was 10.8 years (range: 7 years to 15 years).

In study two, the effects of having a pet since birth versus no pet were examined. The average age at assessment was 11.1 years (range: 6 years to 16 years). Social impairment in four domains — reciprocal social interactions, verbal and nonverbal communication, and stereotyped behaviors and restricted interests — was assessed using the 36-item Autism Diagnostic Interview-Revised parental questionnaire. Pets involved included dogs, cats, one hamster and one rabbit.

The researchers found that, in the pet-arrival-after-age-5 group, two of the 36 items changed positively: offering to share and offering comfort. No significant changes were seen in the having-a-pet-since-birth group. No other significant between-group differences were observed.

In general, families who acquired their pet after the child with autism turned 5 years old reported more frequent interactions between the child and the pet, including more tactile and visual interactions, and greater time spent with the pet on play and care.

“To our knowledge, this is the first study showing an association between pet arrival and changes in prosocial behaviors,” the researchers wrote. “Our study follows the footsteps of the human-pet reports on the improvement of prosocial behaviors in individuals with typical development.”

Grandgeorge M et al. PLoS One. 2012; doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0041739.