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MU study shows dogs improve quality of life for families with autistic children

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Interdisciplinary researchers at the University of Missouri have found that families who have children with autism spectrum disorders believe dog ownership has had a positive impact in their lives.

“We are beginning to learn how companion animals may provide comfort and unconditional love to families of children with autism and to the children themselves,” said Rebecca Johnson, director of the MU Research Center for Human-Animal Interaction (ReCHAI) and a professor in the MU Sinclair School of Nursing and the College of Veterinary Medicine. “This may be particularly important given the very high stress levels of these families. Pet dogs can have a calming effect in stressful situations, as has been shown widely in research.”

According to information that the university released on Monday, researchers used new social media mapping methods to analyze the posts of families affected by autism. The researchers analyzed word clusters such as “pet,” “love” and “family” from thousands of internet forum and social media posts by members of families with ASD kids. They concluded from their analysis that dogs trained to be therapy or service animals can help these children in school and social settings, as well improve the overall quality of life for every member of their families.

“Pet dogs are common in families with typically developing children and also among families of children with autism,” said Gretchen Carlisle, a former doctoral student in the MU Sinclair School of Nursing. “Most parents reported that their children were attached to their dogs, and children said they had closer bonds with small dogs. Considering the special needs of children with autism, selecting the right dog for the right family may be very important for successful family/pet relationships.”