How is an autistic animal

Autism: The presence of animals helps reduce social anxiety

26.07.2015

When animals are present, children with autism experience less anxiety and less discomfort when socializing with their peers. This was shown by measurements from a sensitive device in a study by American and Australian researchers.

Animals such as dogs, cats or guinea pigs could support treatment programs for autistic children and help improve their social skills and facilitate interactions with other people. This is the conclusion of the researcher Dr. Marguerite O'Haire of the College of Veterinary Medicine at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Indiana, and her colleagues from the School of Psychology at the University of Queensland in Brisbane, Australia.
The study was published in the journal Developmental Psychobiology.

This publication provides physiological evidence that the closeness of animals relieves children of some of the stress associated with social situations for them.

For their study, Dr. O'Haire and her colleagues describe skin conductivity, i.e. the speed with which an electrical impulse passes through the skin. When people are excited or anxious, the electrical charge travels through the skin faster. This gives scientists an objective way of measuring social anxiety and other forms of psychological arousal. The researchers divided 114 children aged 5 to 12 into 38 groups of three children each. In each group there was one child with autism and two “normal” children. Each child wore a bracelet with a device that measures skin conductivity.

For the first few minutes, the children were asked to read a book quietly so that the researchers had a measure of basic skin conductivity during non-stressful activity. Next, each child was asked to read from the book aloud in the presence of the other two participants in their group. A task with which the restlessness in social situations can be measured.

The researchers then brought toys into the room and let the children play freely for 10 minutes. This situation can be stressful for children with autism. Finally, the experts came into the room with two guinea pigs and let the children play with them under supervision for up to 10 minutes. The scientists had chosen guinea pigs because of their small size and docile nature.

The researchers found that, compared to the normally developed children, the children with autism had higher skin conductivity when they read softly, when they read aloud, and when they played in the group. This agrees with reports from parents and teachers, and results from other studies that indicate that children with autism are more likely to be more anxious than normally developed children in social situations.

In the presence of the guinea pigs, however, the skin conductivity decreased significantly in the autistic children. The researchers speculate that this happens because the animals fully accept the children, which gives the children security. While humans by nature always judge their counterparts socially, animals are mostly perceived as unconditional, positive support, according to the thesis of the authors.

For reasons that researchers cannot explain, skin conductivity increased in the normally developed children with the guinea pigs. The researchers assume that these higher readings are based on positive excitement when looking at the animals rather than indicating nervousness or fear.
Dr. However, O'Haire cautioned that the results would not mean that parents of autistic children should buy an animal for their children. More research is needed to determine how animals can be included in social skills development programs.

Source: ScienceDaily, Developmental Psychobiology