Animals ease anxiety for kids with autism

Animals ease anxiety for kids with autism

Animals could play a role in treating children with autism spectrum disorder in the future as new research suggests that animals may actually help reduce social anxiety and improve social skills.

The study, funded in part by the National Institutes of Health, found that interaction with a guinea pig helped ease the stress children with autism felt in uncomfortable social situations.

“Interacting with animals may be a calming experience for any child with or without special needs,” says Dr. James Weedon, director of Developmental Pediatrics at Advocate Children’s Hospital. “Families should consider a child’s strengths and difficulties to decide if an animal is a good fit. I would caution parents considering a pet to evaluate their ability to care for the animal and not to expect that it will improve a child’s symptoms of autism spectrum.”

Researchers placed wrist bands on the kids with autism spectrum disorder and others without the diagnosis. A device on the wristband was used to measure skin conductance. Knowing that when someone is anxious, frightened or scared, an electric charge will travel faster through the skin, the device gave researchers an objective way to measure responses.

The over 100 children, ages 5 to 12, were then divided into groups and asked to read silently and aloud in front of peers. Toys and free time then were introduced. The social opportunities are often extremely stressful for autistic children who have difficulty relating socially to peers.

The children with autism spectrum disorder had higher levels of anxiety throughout the process until a guinea pig was brought into the room for supervised play. Anxiety levels then fell significantly, and researchers believe the pig offered unconditional acceptance and made the children feel more secure.

While the study brings optimism, further research is needed to determine how companion animals such as dogs, cats and guinea pigs may help in autism treatment.

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About the Author

Evonne Woloshyn
Evonne Woloshyn

Evonne Woloshyn, health enews contributor, is director of public affairs at Advocate Children's Hospital. Evonne began her career as an anchor and reporter in broadcast news. Over the past 20 years, she has worked in health care marketing in both Ohio and Illinois. Evonne loves to travel, spend time with family and is an avid Pittsburgh Steelers fan!