SALT LAKE CITY — Many people with pets realize that their animals help them strike up conversations and increase their sociality. A new study shows that animals have the same effect with autistic children.
A study conducted by doctoral candidate, Maggie O'Haire, at the University of Queensland, tested 15 different classrooms after exposing the students to two guinea pigs. The researchers observed if the presence of the guinea pigs affected the interaction of the autistic students with adults and non-autistic kids.
The researchers found that the guinea pigs did increase the social activity of the autistic children with their peers and teachers. The autistic students were significantly more talkative and cheerful in the presence of guinea pigs than in the presence of toys. The children were also more likely to look at faces, make physical contact, and interact with others in the classroom.
O'Haire gave several theories as to why animals had an effect on the autistic children.
"First of all, animals facilitate social interaction by giving people a common focus of attention," O'Haire told NPR. "There's something about having an animal present that gets people talking."
She also said that research has shown that animals have a calming effect, particularly for students with autism who are already overwhelmed by a school environment.
O'Haire also wrote in her study that animals make people seem more appealing and social.
"If you have an animal with you, people actually perceive you as friendlier, happier, and less threatening," O'Haire said. "Having an animal there may have changed the children's perceptions of their peers in a more positive light."
O'Haire thinks animals could aid autistic children with social interactions in many places, including classrooms and therapists' offices.