Autism and Animals: A Match Made in Heaven
Intriguing new research funded by the National Institutes of Health suggests that children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) remain calmer when they have to interact with other children, provided there’s an animal present. Previous research had already demonstrated that the presence of companion animals—such as family dogs, cats, or guinea pigs—improved autistic kids’ ability to function socially.
The present study echoed these findings. "Previous studies suggest that in the presence of companion animals, children with autism spectrum disorders function better socially,” said James Griffin, Ph.D., of the Child Development and Behavior Branch at NIH's Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD). "This study provides physiological evidence that the proximity of animals eases the stress that children with autism may experience in social situations.”
To arrive at that conclusion, investigators monitored skin conductance, which serves as a reliable proxy for anxiety, fear, or excitement. It’s one of the physiological parameters used in so-called “lie detector” testing. When telling a lie, most people experience small changes in skin conductance related to fear or anxiety over telling the lie. Among the children with ASD, anxiety levels tended to be high when the children were asked to play, read silently, or read out loud, in a room with “normal” peers. But when guinea pigs were introduced into the mix, the kids’ anxiety levels dropped back to normal.
The research suggests what common sense already tells us. Animals tend to be viewed as loving, non-threatening, and non-judgmental, and their presence often has a calming effect. The investigators caution against implementing your own animal buddy program at home or in school. "Our study was conducted in a supervised setting, by researchers experienced in working with kids with autism spectrum disorders who understand the needs and requirements of the animals," said Marguerite O'Haire, Ph.D., in a press release from the Center for the Human-Animal Bond in the College of Veterinary Medicine of Purdue University in West Lafayette, Indiana.
Marguerite E. O'Haire, Samantha J. McKenzie, Alan M. Beck, Virginia Slaughter. Animals may act as social buffers: Skin conductance arousal in children with autism spectrum disorder in a social context. Developmental Psychobiology, 2015; DOI: 10.1002/dev.21310