by Marine Grandgeorge, Sylvie Tordjman, Alain Lazartigues, Eric Lemonnier, Michel Deleau, Martine Hausberger
Alteration of social interactions especially prosocial behaviors – an important aspect of development – is one of the characteristics of autistic disorders. Numerous strategies or therapies are used to improve communication skills or at least to reduce social impairments. Animal-assisted therapies are used widely but their relevant benefits have never been scientifically evaluated. In the present study, we evaluated the association between the presence or the arrival of pets in families with an individual with autism and the changes in his or her prosocial behaviors. Of 260 individuals with autism - on the basis of presence or absence of pets - two groups of 12 individuals and two groups of 8 individuals were assigned to: study 1 (pet arrival after age of 5 versus no pet) and study 2 (pet versus no pet), respectively. Evaluation of social impairment was assessed at two time periods using the 36-items ADI-R algorithm and a parental questionnaire about their child-pet relationships. The results showed that 2 of the 36 items changed positively between the age of 4 to 5 (t0) and time of assessment (t1) in the pet arrival group (study 1): “offering to share” and “offering comfort”. Interestingly, these two items reflect prosocial behaviors. There seemed to be no significant changes in any item for the three other groups. The interactions between individuals with autism and their pets were more – qualitatively and quantitatively - reported in the situation of pet arrival than pet presence since birth. These findings open further lines of research on the impact of pet’s presence or arrival in families with an individual with autism. Given the potential ability of individuals with autism to develop prosocial behaviors, related studies are needed to better understand the mechanisms involved in the development of such child-pet relationship.