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Time With Animals May Reduce Anxiety for Autistic Students

Autistic children have less anxiety when animals are around, according to a recent National Institutes of Health study.

Researchers used devices that detect anxiety to monitor children on the autism spectrum. The children were evaluated when they were with animals and when they socialized with peers. The study was conducted by Marguerite O’Haire, Ph.D. and her colleagues in the School of Psychology at the University of Queensland in Brisbane, Australia. It appeared to show that domesticated animals—including dogs, cats and guinea pigs—could be useful aids for treating ASD students and helping them to improve their social interactions. 

“Previous studies suggest that in the presence of companion animals, children with autism spectrum disorders function better socially,” said James Griffin, Ph.D., of the Child Development and Behavior Branch at NIH’s Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development. “This study provides physiological evidence that the proximity of animals eases the stress that children with autism may experience in social situations.”

The researchers took 114 children from 5 to 12 years old and divided them into a total of 38 groups of three. One child in each monitored group of three had ASD.

All children wore a wrist band that measures skin conductance while the children in the groups silently read. Then researchers asked each child to read aloud. The read aloud session was followed by a break to play with toys for 10 minutes, followed by another 10-minute break with two guinea pigs. 

For the children with ASD, skin conductance levels rose for the read aloud and toy playing sessions, but dropped when the children played with guinea pigs.

“The researchers speculate that because companion animals offer unqualified acceptance, their presence makes the children feel more secure. Whereas human counterparts inherently pass social judgment, animals are often perceived as sources of unconditional, positive support, the researchers wrote.”

For more on this study, visit here, and make sure to include your comments on the research below. 

Article by Jason Papallo, Education World Social Media Editor
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