A new study has provided a physiological measurement of how interacting with pets can decrease anxiety in children with autism.
“Previous studies suggest that in the presence of companion animals, children with autism spectrum disorders function better socially,” James Griffin, of the National Institutes of Health’s Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, which helped fund the new research, told the website Disability Scoop. “This study provides physiological evidence that the proximity of animals eases the stress that children with autism may experience in social situations.”
For the study, researchers worked with 114 children between the ages of five and 12, a third of whom were on the autism spectrum. All the children were outfitted with wrist devices to read skin conductance, the level of charge that passes through the skin. Those charges increase when people feel excited or anxious.
The children were then placed in various situations, including reading silently, reading aloud with peers, playing alone, and playing with two guinea pigs while supervised by adults.
In each of those situations except the one involving the pet guinea pigs, the children with autism had higher skin conductance levels, indicating higher anxiety.
Lead researcher Marguerite O’Haire, of Purdue University, cautioned that the findings don’t mean parents should immediately rush out and buy pets for children on the autism spectrum. But, she said, animals may play a part in helping children with autism to develop socially.
The full study has been published in the journal Developmental Psychology under the title “Animals may act as social buffers: Skin conductance arousal in children with autism spectrum disorder in a social context.”
Autism is a neurological disorder that is being diagnosed in more and more children. In 2000, about one in 150 children was diagnosed with autism; in 2010, the figure was one in 68. That’s an increase of 119.4% in a single decade.
It’s not known what causes autism — although a recent University of Pittsburgh study linked it to air pollution levels — and one of the major debates over the disorder is whether it’s actually becoming more common or if a higher awareness level is simply leading to prompter and more accurate diagnoses.