Studies show that pets are good social buffers for children with autism

New York — These days, more and more children with autism are benefiting from the company of their highly-trained service dogs. It has been proven many times over that service dogs are capable of making positive impacts on children with autism, especially when it comes to socialization.

Now it appears that cats can also have the same effect to kids on the spectrum.

Several studies have concluded that pets can have a significant impact on children with autism, especially on the part where they struggle the most— socialization.

One of these studies is by a team of French researchers, published in 2012 in PLOS One. After conducting a research involving 260 families who care for at least one individual on the spectrum, the researchers concluded that introducing pets to the home of a child with ASD can have profound effects on him. According to the researchers:

“The arrival of a pet in a family has been shown to increase the level of interactions between family members: they spend more time together and share joint attention on the new family member.”

The researchers concluded that introducing pets to children with autism has the best effect if done after the kids turn five years old, where they noted that the social interactions involved in caring for pets have made the kids more sociable. They told:

“Playing with a pet is a complex behavior, sometimes involving object manipulation as a means for practice and mastery of action schemas (i.e. sensorimotor play) or a child’s ability for mental representation.”

This therefore means that the child has a way in which to practice and act out those events which are happening in their life.


In 2013, another study published in the same journal supported these findings after observing 99 children who were given time to spend with guinea pigs, and then with toys. The authors wrote:

“Participants with ASD demonstrated more social approach behaviors (including talking, looking at faces, and making tactile contact) and received more social approaches from their peers in the presence of animals compared to toys.”

Just recently, scientists published a similar study in the April issue of Development Psychobiology, wherein they found that children with ASD were more stressed in classroom settings, except during the times that they were given the chance to play with guinea pigs.

In all these studies, the pets involved acted as “social buffers” for the children with ASD, helping them overcome social challenges in one way or another.

The same is true in the case of Richard Manerling, a man with autism who was once incapable of communicating verbally. In an article published on Cats.About.Com, his father recalled when his then four-year-old son who was preverbal spotted their now much loved Cat, Clover.:

“From day one, we heard Richard having conversations with Clover when no one was looking. He had language. He needed someone with the patience to listen and who did not ask him to repeat himself or explain what he meant. Clover had all those qualities.”

Richard continued to share his world with cats long after Clover has passed. Sharing how the felines changed his life, he told his father:

“Cats are like me.”

“They look at everything and think about it when everyone thinks they’re not paying attention and they only talk when they have something to say.”

On the other hand, Iris Grace Halmshaw, a five-year-old with autism who is mostly non-verbal, started expressing herself through paintings once introduced to a cat who would later on become her art assistant, Thula. Autism Daily Newscast had the great pleasure of interviewing Iris’ mother, Arabella Carter Johnson, back in September 2014: Iris Grace Painting – an inspiring 4 year old little girl who paints.

In an email to Medical Daily, Ms Carter Johnson told:

“She helps Iris through the many challenges she faces on a daily basis.”

Although it’s known that pets can ease the pressure of the social problems that children on the spectrum deal with, Medical Daily stresses that pets “shouldn’t be seen as a wonder treatment.” Pets are indeed helpful to children with ASD, but they should not be considered as alternative to the already existing evidence-based treatments prescribed my doctors. As told perfectly by Mrs. Carter Johnson:

“Obviously not all cats are like this and maybe Thula’s incredibly special — she certainly is to us — but I don’t believe she will be the only one.”

Source: Ed Cara: Medical Daily: Children With Autism Can Become More Social With A Cat By Their Side