April is Autism Awareness Month, and the Research Center for Human-Animal Interaction (ReCHAI) at the University of Missouri College of Veterinary Medicine is conducting studies focused on the disorder. Autism, as defined by Autism Speaks, an advocacy charity dedicated to promoting solutions for the needs of individuals with autism and their families, is a broad range of conditions characterized by challenges with social skills, repetitive behaviors, speech and nonverbal communication. The spectrum of severity varies greatly among those who are affected.
Gretchen Carlisle, PhD, a research scientist at ReCHAI, has been studying children with autism and pets for 10 years, and found that there was a need for further research on the human-animal interaction. “Most research on the human-animal bond for children with autism has focused on animal assisted therapy, and very little was known about pets in families of children with autism,” said Carlisle. “The cost and accessibility of therapy animals limit the number of children who may have interactions with therapy animals, yet many families can afford to have a pet.”
Carlisle recently conducted a randomized controlled trial of families of children with autism and their adoption of temperament screened shelter cats. The participants were randomized into two different groups, a treatment group, whose members adopted a cat and were followed for 18 weeks with data collection in their homes every six weeks, and a control group, who were also studied for 18 weeks but without the presence of a cat. The control group participants then converted to the treatment group with the adoption of a cat and were followed for an additional 18 weeks of data collection.
With very little research on cats in families of children with autism, Carlisle’s goal in this exploratory study was to examine the impact of the adoption of a shelter cat on the children with autism and the cats. “One of the things that we found in this study is that children had an increase in empathy, and decrease in separation anxiety,” said Carlisle. “The animals also provided companionship, which can be especially important for a child with autism who may struggle to socialize among their peers.”
Another important benefit is that pets can provide what Carlisle calls a “social lubricant,” meaning that, a pet can provide an easy introduction or conversation starter amongst those that they may feel uncomfortable with at first. “For children with autism who struggle with communication as one of their primary symptoms, having something to talk about and share about that’s in common with their peers is very important, and animals can fill that role,” said Carlisle.
Carlisle also mentions that, while the people in this study were the primary subjects, she often looks at the other end of the leash as well. “I’m very focused about what’s going on with the humans, but also what’s going on with the animals,” she said. “One of the things that we found in our trial is that the cats fared very well. They didn’t have an increase in stress. We measured stress through fecal cortisol and cat weight, as objective measures. Temperament screened shelter cats may do very well in families of children with autism. That’s a really positive thing.”
In her previous research, Carlisle had found that cats were common in families of children with autism, leading to her conducting this study. “Little was known about the impact of these cats on children with autism,” Carlisle said. “Also, no research had studied the effect on cats of being adopted into families of children with autism.”
Carlisle is working toward future research leading to more information about the impact of pets on the family functioning in families of children with autism, as well as siblings in the families. Carlisle says, “most research has focused on trained animals such as those used in therapy, so we are seeking to help people in their everyday lives who may not have access to specially trained animals.”
By Nick Childress