For a child with autism, a dog in the family can offer a big benefit -- companionship. Although many children with autism face difficulty forming friendships, the "unconditional, nonjudgmental love" of dogs helps lower that barrier, says Gretchen Carlisle, a researcher at the University of Missouri.
Carlisle surveyed 70 parents of children with autism, and among families who owned dogs, parents reported that children had bonded with their pets in nearly every instance. Even for children who didn't have canine companions, 70 percent of parents said their kids were fond of dogs, according to the recently published study.
"Children with autism may especially benefit from interacting with dogs," Carlisle says, because the pets can act as "social lubricant." A playful dog, for example, can help a child with autism build bridges with other children in the neighborhood.
As no two children with autism are the same, Carlisle notes, parents should take into account their child's needs when looking for a pet. "If a child with autism is sensitive to loud noises, choosing a dog that is likely to bark will not provide the best match for the child and the family," she says. For children who may be sensitive to touching, "a dog with a softer coat, such as a poodle, would be better than a dog with a wiry or rough coat, such as a terrier." An animal from another species, too, may prove to be a better companion for a child with autism. "Dogs may be best for some families," the researcher says, "although other pets such as cats, horses or rabbits might be better suited to other children with autism and their particular sensitivities and interests."