Among the common symptoms of children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) are diminished communication and/or social interaction. There have been many treatments proposed to alleviate this problem, including animal therapies. Studies testing animal-assisted interactions for kids with ASD have had generally positive results. However, those studies did not specifically compare the benefits of animals to those of equally engaging toys. In other words, perhaps it was the stimulation rather than anything particular about animals that helped the kids. Marguerite O’Haire of the University of Queensland and her colleagues set the record straight: it's the animals all right.
The scientists recruited 99 children aged 5 to 13, one third of whom were diagnosed with ASD. The kids were divided into groups of three, with one ASD child and two neurotypical kids in each group. After signing up, the children had an eight-week waiting period followed by the eight-week study period during which two guinea pigs lived in their classroom. Before and after the waiting period and after the study period, the kids were given unstructured time to play with a variety of toys. Twice each week during the eight-week study, the guinea pigs were brought out and handled by the threesome.
Three of those sixteen animal sessions (the first, last and one in the middle) were videotaped, as were the three toy sessions. Experienced behavior coders who did not know the aims of the study watched the tapes and evaluated the kids’ behavior. As an aside, they used a coding system that was specifically designed for this study, the full name of which is ‘Observation of Human Animal Interaction for Research’. The researchers refer to it as OHAIRE, but I’m sure that’s just a coincidence.
Anyway, the children with ASD showed more prosocial behaviors of nearly every kind (approaching others, speaking to or looking at others, smiling) during the guinea pig sessions than they did during the toy sessions. The only exception was that the kids with ASD spoke to their peers more during the toy sessions (they spoke to adults more when animals were present). Interestingly, the kids with ASD handled the toys much more than they did the animals. Apparently, the children didn’t have to have the guinea pigs in their laps, the animals just had to be around. This was born out by the fact that 82% of the kids said they preferred the guinea pigs to the toys.
O'Haire, M., McKenzie, S., Beck, A., & Slaughter, V. (2013). Social Behaviors Increase in Children with Autism in the Presence of Animals Compared to Toys PLoS ONE, 8 (2) DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0057010.