There is much research emphasizing the benefits animals have on children with autism. A new study from the University of Missouri has found that cats may help increase empathy while decreasing anxiety for children with autism. These findings are beneficial for families considering adopting a companion animal for their child.
Gretchen Carlisle, a research scientist at the MU Research Center for Human-Animal Interaction (ReCHAI) in the MU College of Veterinary Medicine studies the benefits that companion animals can have for families.
“Previous research has shown parents of kids with autism are more stressed than parents of kids with any other disability,” Carlisle said. “If a family is considering adopting a companion animal, we want to provide the best evidence-based information possible so they can make an informed decision, and cats might be more beneficial than dogs to some families.”
In the study, families that had children with autism aged 6-14 were recruited through the MU Thompson Center for Autism and Neurodevelopmental Disorders and monitored after adopting a cat into their home. The cats were screened for temperament to ensure they were calm and a good match for the family. Not only did the families report an instant bond between their child with autism and their new cat, but the bond remained strong over the course of time, and the child’s anxiety decreased over time.
“We found the main benefit of these companion animals is their unconditional acceptance,” Carlisle said. “Some children with autism may have sensory issues or be sensitive to loud noises, so a cat may be an appropriate, comforting pet for some families due to their calming presence.”
Helping families make the best choice for their kids has motivated Carlisle’s research with companion animals, and the study’s findings highlight the benefits of human-animal interaction.
“As a former pediatric nurse, I have always strived to help children, and one thing I learned is that you need to involve the parents so they can make informed choices for their children,” Carlisle said. “I see pets as a way to enhance wellness, and it feels gratifying to provide assistance to families that have a lot on their plate.”