WebMD Medical News
Louise Chang, MD
Aug. 1, 2012 -- By just about any measure of accomplishment, Danny Gross would be considered a successful young adult.
The 25-year-old is a popular graduate student in cinematic arts at the University of Southern California, and his mother, Patty, calls him an all-around great kid.
He is also on the autism spectrum.
His mother is convinced that his childhood golden retriever, Madison, who joined the family when Danny was 7, played a part in his success, and a new study backs up the claim.
Although there is plenty of anecdotal evidence linking pet ownership to better socialization in children with autism, the study is among the first to explore the connection.
Researchers in France tested behavior and intelligence in 260 children with autism who did and did not have pets -- mostly dogs and cats.
They found that those who became pet owners after the age of 5 performed better than children without pets on two key measures of social functioning -- offering comfort and offering to share.
The extent to which the children bonded with the new pet was a major determinant of whether pet ownership influenced social interactions.
Having a pet from birth did not appear to influence the socialization behaviors, leading the researchers to conclude that the arrival of a pet when a child is old enough to recognize the addition may be critical.
The new study appears in the August issue of the journal PLoS One.
"To my knowledge, this is the first time that a study has demonstrated that the adoption of a pet is linked to social improvements for individuals with autism," says researcher Marine Grandgeorge, PhD, of France's Hopital de Bohars.
The study was small and Grandgeorge says larger, more rigorously designed studies are needed to confirm the findings.
And she warns against getting a pet without considering whether the move is appropriate for the entire family.
Alycia Halladay, PhD, who is director of environmental research for the education and advocacy group Autism Speaks, agrees.
"We certainly don't want families who are already stressed to get the idea that they need to add a pet to their family if that pet is not really wanted," she says.
She says the new study offers some of the first scientific evidence to back up the anecdotal stories suggesting that pets help some autistic children learn to interact with the world, but she cautions that the benefits were limited.
Patty Dobbs Gross, Danny's mother, says parents should not get a pet for an autistic child unless the child shows some interest.
"Families with children on the autism spectrum try a lot of different things, but this is not something you do just to check it off your list," she says.
Dobbs Gross now breeds dogs especially for families with children on the autism spectrum.
As director of the North Star Foundation, she has placed more than 100 dogs -- mostly golden retrievers and labs -- with such families.
She says autism service dogs are different from other service dogs in that the public is often encouraged to interact with them.
Her dogs often wear special vests with the message: "Please ask to pet me."
"One of the dog's functions is to get typically developing people to overcome their fear of the different, and interact with an autistic child," she says. "This interaction helps everyone."
Another function is to be a non-judgmental companion for the autistic child.
"Danny was mainstreamed from the time he entered school," Dobbs Gross says. "When he would come home during some of those difficult years around middle school, his dog would always be waiting for him."
SOURCES:Grandgeorge, M. PLoS One, August 2012.Marine Grandgeorge, PhD, Hopital de Bohars, France.Alycia Halladay, PhD, director of environmental research, Autism Speaks.Patty Dobbs Gross, director, North Star Foundation.News release, Public Library of Science.
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