Animals May Play Bigger Role Than Toys in Aiding Autistic Children

Animals can have a greater impact than toys in improving the social behavior of children diagnosed with autism, the Human Animal Bond Research Initiative reported Monday.

A study by Marguerite O’Haire, a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Queensland in Australia, and three other researchers found that participants demonstrated more social behaviors such as talking, looking at faces and making tactile contact when in the presence of animals compared to toys.

“The presence of an animal appears to encourage socialization among children with autism and their peers,” O’Haire said. “When with an animal, children with autism smiled and laughed more often, were more talkative, and looked at people’s faces more than they did when with toys.”

The study involved 33 children diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and 66 typically developing peers. Groups of one ASD child and two peers were recorded playing with toys and then with two guinea pigs.

Researchers found that ASD children displayed more pro-social behaviors and positive effects when in the presence of animals compared to toys and less frowning, crying and whining.

An estimated one in every 50 U.S. children has ASD, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The study was published in late February in PLOS ONE, an international, peer-reviewed online publication.