Autism can make it difficult for children to bond with other people. For unknown reasons, aspects of an autistic child’s cognitive development are hindered, so it becomes difficult for children with autism to identify their needs and feelings and to express these to other people, including family members. Without the ability to more easily connect to people, children with autism have a tendency to remain emotionally distant and socially underdeveloped, choosing not to interact at all. But this can change by introducing a dog into the home to become an autistic child’s pet and companion.
In a French study published in 2012, researchers found that autistic children who were given a pet (dog, cat, hamster) after the age of five were more socially adjusted. They shared their toys more and showed signs of empathy by comforting other children. The study was conducted by the Autism Resource Center at Hospital Bohars in France, who evaluated the social behaviors of 12 children with autism in a day-care center. The results also showed that the timing of when an autistic child receives a pet matters. Only those autistic children who had a pet after turning five years old showed improvement in socio-emotional development. Those who either had a pet at the time they were born, or who never had a pet, did not exhibit social improvement. The researchers of this study state, “When a human and a pet are interacting, each partner uses signals emitted by the other to adjust their behavior.”
Interaction, the giving and receiving of verbal and nonverbal messages, is how people develop their language skills and their ability to understand and relate with others. Children who experience difficulty interacting with people can still partake in this important exchange by interacting with a pet. Research done by 4 Paw for Ability revealed that children with autism who had a service dog will go to that dog for companionship and comfort when they often will not seek this companionship with family members. One autistic girl who has a 4 Paws assistance dog has even taught it to obey her commands, like sit and stay, rarely talking otherwise. She also snuggles with her service dog.
The value of a dog in the life of an autistic child does not stop short at helping the child grow socially and to develop emotional connections that can transfer to their interactions with people. There are organizations that train certain dogs to become a practical help to not only an autistic child, but also the child’s caretakers. Parents and caretakers of autistic children have plenty to think about when it comes to safety, and the next article will discuss how service dogs help with the safety issues related to autism.