Pets May Help Autistic Kids Socialize
Having a pet may help autistic children learn to socialize better, but only if the pet is brought into the home when the child is approximately 5 years old, according to a new study, published in the journal PLoS ONE.
Researchers found that autistic children who get a pet when they are 5 years old or older showed improvements in their ability to empathize and share with others, whereas children who had a pet from birth did not show the same improvement.
"In individuals with autism, pet arrival in the family setting may bring about changes in specific aspects of their socio-emotional development," the researchers wrote in the study.
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The study was small; researchers only looked at 260 autistic children. However, they found that children who got a pet after the age of 5 were more apt to share food and toys as well as offer comfort to their family and friends -- two markers commonly used in autism tests.
"To my knowledge, this is the first time that a study has demonstrated that the adoption of a pet is linked to social improvements for individuals with autism," Marine Grandgeorge, study author and researcher with France's Hopital de Bohars, told WebMD.
Autism is a development disorder characterized by impaired social and communication skills. Autistic children often have poor social skills, a delay in learning to talk, limited interests in activities and engage in repetitive behaviors, according to the Mayo Clinic.
Autism is typically diagnosed around 3 years of age, but symptoms can be seen as early as 16-months-old. Early intervention consists of therapy to help children walk, talk and interact with others before an official diagnosis is made.
Autism rates have skyrocketed since 2002, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In 2002, 1-in-156 children were diagnosed with autism. In 2008, 1-in-88 children were diagnosed, an increase of 78 percent.
The cause of autism is not known, but having a sibling with autism raises the risk. In addition, scientists think there is a genetic factor to the condition.
Just because pets appear to help doesn't mean parents should rush out and get a dog, Alycia Halladay director of environmental research for the advocacy group Autism Speaks, told WebMD.
"We certainly don't want families who are already stressed to get the idea that they need to add a pet to their family if that pet is not really wanted," she said
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