A new study finds that animals may help children with autism connect with other people.
Autism is a neurodevelopmental disorder characterized by impaired communication and social interactions.
Australian researchers compared how children with autism (aged 5 to 13) interacted with adults and non-autistic children when there were either two guinea pigs or toys in a room.
Compared to having toys around, the children with autism were more likely to talk, look at faces and make physical contact when the guinea pigs were present. They also were more likely to respond to other children's attempts to play with them.
The presence of the guinea pigs also led to more smiling and laughing, and less frowning, whining and crying among the children with autism, compared to having the toys, according to the study, which was published in the Public Library of Science journal PLoS One.
The positive effect that animals have on children with autism may help encourage them to interact with therapists, teachers and other adults, said Marguerite O'Haire and colleagues at the University of Queensland. Animals may also help in the classroom, a journal news release noted.
"For children with [autism], the school classroom can be a stressful and overwhelming environment, due to social challenges and peer victimization," the researchers wrote. "If an animal can reduce this stress or artificially change children's perception of the classroom and its occupants, then a child with [autism] may feel more at ease and open to social approach behaviors."
Previous research has shown that strangers are more likely to be friendly to people who are walking a dog than those who are walking alone. Similar effects have been noted for people holding smaller animals such as rabbits or turtles.
A recent evidence review from Rome suggests that trained companion dogs could help children with autism.
This "social lubricant" effect of animals on interaction between people can be particularly important for people with socio-emotional problems, the study authors wrote.