WEDNESDAY, Aug. 1 (HealthDay News) -- Introducing a pet into the home of a child with autism may help that child develop improved social behaviors, new research finds.
The study, from French researchers, is the first strong scientific evidence that animals may help foster social skills in individuals with autism, but it also reinforces what clinicians have been hearing anecdotally for years.
"We hear from parents a lot that having a pet or interacting with an animal really helps their child's social behavior, but there hasn't been a study so far that has looked at that scientifically," said Alycia Halladay, director of environmental research at Autism Speaks. "This offers some intriguing evidence to confirm what parents have been saying."
Halladay was not involved with the study, which was published online Aug. 1 in the journal PLoS ONE.
Problems with communication are one of the hallmarks of autism and strategies to combat this are central to autism therapy.
According to Halladay, some people with autism use service dogs but usually to address a particular handicap, such as problems with motor coordination or hearing loss, although not yet for social skills.
Previous studies have verified that having a pet in the house actually improves family bonding and can improve the social skills of a non-autistic child as he or she learns to share with the pet and care for it.
To see if pets might have the same effect in children with autism, the study authors compared the children's social interactions (as reported by the parents of the children with autism) in three different settings: households that had never had a pet; homes that had had a pet since the child's birth; and households that had acquired a pet after the child turned 5.
In total, 260 individuals with autism were involved and the researchers were most interested in social intera
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