Social behaviors increase in children with autism in the presence of animals compared to toys
Previous research has demonstrated the capacity of animal presence to stimulate social interaction among humans. The purpose of this study was to examine the interactions of children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) with an adult and their typically-developing peers in the presence of animals (two guinea pigs) compared to toys.
Ninety-nine children from 15 classrooms in 4 schools met the inclusion criteria and participated in groups of three (1 child with ASD and 2 typically-developing peers). Each group was video-recorded during three 10-minute, free-play sessions with toys and three 10-minute, free-play sessions with two guinea pigs. Two blinded observers coded the behavior of children with ASD and their peers. To account for the nested study design, data were analyzed using hierarchical generalized linear modeling.
Participants with ASD demonstrated more social approach behaviors (including talking, looking at faces, and making tactile contact) and received more social approaches from their peers in the presence of animals compared to toys. They also displayed more prosocial behaviors and positive affect (i.e., smiling and laughing) as well as less self-focused behaviors and negative affect (i.e., frowning, crying, and whining) in the presence of animals compared to toys.
These results suggest that the presence of an animal can significantly increase positive social behaviors among children with ASD.
For more information, please refer to the full study, available here.