Severe impairment in social reciprocity is the core, underlying feature of ASD. Socialization deficits are a major source of impairment, regardless of cognitive or language ability and do not decrease with development. This includes difficulties in communicating with others, processing and integrating emotional information, establishing and maintaining reciprocal social relationships, taking another person's perspective, and inferring the interests of others. Intervention approaches and nontraditional therapies aimed at improving the everyday lives and social interactions of individuals with ASD are routinely discussed and advocated by researchers, parents and professionals. For example, several studies suggest that children learn prosocial behaviors through their interactions with pets. The arrival of a pet in a family has also 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. Although animal-assisted therapies (AAT) are increasingly recommended, their relevant benefits for individuals with ASD are in need of research attention.
A study published in the open access journal PLoS ONE evaluated the association between the presence or the arrival of pets in families with an individual with autism and changes in his or her prosocial behaviors. Researchers hypothesized that a pet (e.g., dog, cat) at home might help individuals with autism to develop some prosocial behaviors. The study compared three situations: (1) never owned a pet, (2) owned a pet since birth (e.g., pet has been part of the individual’s environment), or (3) owned a pet after the age of 5. Of 260 individuals diagnosed with autism – on the basis of presence or absence of pets - two groups of 12 individuals and two groups of 8 individuals were assigned to: study 1 (pet arrival after age of 5 versus no pet) and study 2 (pet versus no pet), respectively. Evaluation of social impairment was assessed at two time periods using the 36-item Autism Diagnostic Interview (ADI-R) algorithm and a parental questionnaire about their child-pet relationships.
Comparison of ADI-R assessment between the groups at two different time periods revealed significant changes in ADI-R scores only in the group experiencing the pet arrival in their homes. The results indicated that 2 of the 36 items changed positively between the age of 4 to 5 and time of assessment in the pet arrival group (study 1): ‘‘offering to share’’ and ‘‘offering comfort’’. Both items reflect prosocial behaviors. There appeared to be no significant changes in any item for the three other groups. The interactions between individuals with autism and their pets were more – qualitatively and quantitatively - reported in the situation of pet “arrival” than pet presence since birth. One interesting finding was that similar results were observed for the individuals who were in the presence of a pet from birth and those who never owned a pet. The sole presence of the pet did not result in a benefit for the individuals with autism. Changes were only observed in the group where the pet arrived after the age of 5.
This study suggests that in individuals with autism, pet arrival in the family setting may bring about changes in specific aspects of their socio-emotional development. The findings infer that with parental support, the child involvement towards a pet may influence his/her socio-emotional development. An important finding of the study was that the sole presence of the pet did not confer benefit for the individuals with autism. It appears that the quality of relationship with one’s own pet may be a direct determinant of the individual’s socio-emotional development and ‘‘pet bonding’’ is a stronger determinant of pet-associated benefits than the sole pet ownership. The researchers also suggest that the arrival of a pet strengthens the cohesion of the family and increases the levels of interactions between their members. That is, a new pet arrival might induce an increased interest of the individuals towards the pet and/or their involvement in the family’s interactions. Although these results are promising, further research is needed to explore the association between the arrival of a new pet and the change in prosocial behavior. While the study has limitations and didn’t allow the researchers to clarify the precise role of pets in the families who already owned pets, this study opens interesting areas of research exploring the efficacy of animals employed in AAT settings.
Lee A. Wilkinson, PhD, CCBT, NCSP is author of the award-winning book, A Best Practice Guide to Assessment and Intervention for Autism and Asperger Syndrome in Schools, published by Jessica Kingsley Publishers. He is also editor of a text in the APA School Psychology Book Series, Autism Spectrum Disorder in Children and Adolescents: Evidence-Based Assessment and Intervention in Schools and, most recently, author of the book, Overcoming Anxiety and Depression on the Autism Spectrum: A Self-Help Guide Using CBT.