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Families of autistic children benefit from owning a dog

Children with autism benefit from having dogs
Children with autism benefit from having dogs
Noël Zia Lee, Wikimedia Commons

The parents of children with autism report that owning a dog benefits the family by relieving stress, providing companionship, and giving opportunities to teach children to be responsible, says a study announced on April 14, 2014, by the University of Missouri.

“Children with autism spectrum disorders often struggle with interacting with others, which can make it difficult for them to form friendships,” said Gretchen Carlisle, a research fellow at the Research Center for Human-Animal Interaction (ReCHAI) in the College of Veterinary Medicine. “Children with autism may especially benefit from interacting with dogs, which can provide unconditional, nonjudgmental love and companionship to the children.”

Since autistic children have difficulty developing social relationships, dogs can provide a way for them to connect with their peers. “Dogs can help children with autism by acting as a social lubricant,” Carlisle said. “For example, children with autism may find it difficult to interact with other neighborhood 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.”

Carlisle surveyed 70 parents of children with autism. Nearly two-thirds of the parents were dog owners and 94 percent reported that their autistic kids had bonded with the family dogs. Many dog owners say they chose to get dogs in order to benefit their children. In the group that were not dog owners, 70 percent of the parents reported that their autistic kids liked dogs.

Carlisle said that parents of autistic children should keep their children’s sensitivities in mind when selecting a dog to ensure a good match between the child and the dog. “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.”

Selecting a dog

Carlisle recommends that parents include their autistic children in the selection of a dog. “Many children with autism know the qualities they want in a dog,” Carlisle said. “If parents could involve their kids in choosing dogs for their families, it may be more likely the children will have positive experiences with the animals when they are brought home.”

Dogs may not be the best pet for children with autism. Other pets such as rabbits, cats, or horses may be better suited to their interests and their sensitivities.

The study, “Pet Dog Ownership Decisions for Parents of Children With Autism Spectrum Disorder,” was published earlier this year in the “Journal of Pediatric Nursing.”

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