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Animals Can Help Kids With Autism More Than Toys Can

Recently, researchers explored the potential for therapy animals to help kids with autism, and found that they were more effective than toys

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Image: Genta Masuda

Anyone who’s ever owned a pet can attest to the therapeutic qualities fuzzy, scaly or feathered friends can have. Therapy animals have been around in a rigorous way for fifty years, and each new study finds applications that expand the possible uses of pets. Recently, researchers explored the potential for therapy animals to help kids with autism and found that they were more effective than toys.

The study, published in PLoS ONE, let a classroom of autistic students play with two guinea pigs for about ten minutes. Compared with another group who played with toys for ten minutes, the kids who played with animals seemed to be more social, interact with their peers more and showed fewer negative behaviors.

The Huffington Post spoke with one of the researchers on the study:

“Children with autism engaged in 55 percent more social behaviors when they were with the animals, compared to toys,” said O’Haire, who added that the amount they smiled more than doubled.

“These are big improvements for children who struggle to interact socially and often suffer from heightened anxiety and stress,” O’Haire said. “The ability of an animal to bring out a smile or get a child talking was a huge finding.”

This makes some sense. Kids presented with toys can engage in solitary play, sitting by themselves and playing. They’re also more likely to become destructive and throw a toy than they are to throw a guinea pig. But exactly why the guinea pigs made the kids more social isn’t obvious. Disability Scoop writes:

It’s unclear exactly why kids with autism saw such benefits from the guinea pigs, but researchers suggested that it may be that the presence of the animals made the environment less stressful for them.

And, interestingly, the children warmed up to the animals, but not to humans. In the discussion, the authors write:

In the present study, children with ASD demonstrated warmth and affection to the animals, but not to humans. This paradox may indicate that they felt more comfortable or closer to the animals than the people. Or, it may evidence a different type of relationship between children with ASD and animals versus children with ASD and other humans.

But it could be a first step to understanding how and when to use animals to help autistic kids come out of their shells.

More from Smithsonian.com:

Vaccines Don’t Cause Autism
Temple Grandin on a New Approach for Thinking About Thinking

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About Rose Eveleth
Rose Eveleth

Rose Eveleth is a writer for Smart News and a producer/designer/ science writer/ animator based in Brooklyn. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, Scientific American, Story Collider, TED-Ed and OnEarth.

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