TUESDAY, Feb. 26 (HealthDay News) -- For children with autism,
trained dogs may offer not only a furry friend, but some
therapeutic benefits, too, a new research review finds.
There is a "substantial body of evidence" that dogs act as
"social catalysts," even encouraging adults to be a little
friendlier to each other, said senior researcher Francesca Cirulli,
of the National Institute of Health in Rome, Italy. And the few
studies that have focused on kids with autism suggest the same is
true for them.
People have long turned to animals as a way to help with health
conditions or disabilities -- either as part of formal therapy or
to offer everyday assistance (such as guide dogs for the
In some cases, "therapy" or "service" dogs are called into
action to help children with autism spectrum disorders (ASDs) -- a
group of developmental brain disorders that hinder a child's
ability to communicate and interact socially. ASDs range from the
severe cases of "classic" autism to the relatively mild form called
In the United States, it's estimated that about one in 88
children has some form of autism.
Yet there has been little research into whether trained dogs
actually benefit those kids. The good news is, the existing
evidence is promising, according to the new review, published in
the February issue of the
Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine.
However, "it is early to draw final conclusions," said
Specifically, Cirulli's team found six published studies of
dogs' effects on children with an autism spectrum disorder. Four of
them looked at therapy dogs -- dogs that therapists use during
formal sessions to help children settle in, get engaged and be more
open to communicating.
Overall, the studies were positive, Cirulli and her colleagues
In one study of 22 children, for example, kids were more
talkative and socially engaged during therapy sessions where a dog
was present. In another study, of 12 boys, the children were less
aggressive and smiled more when their therapy session included a
Two studies focused on service dogs -- trained dogs that live
with the family. The animals serve mainly to keep kids with autism
safe; when the family goes out, the child will be literally
tethered to the dog to keep from running off or getting hurt.
"That can be a huge relief for families," said Dr. Melissa Nishawala, medical director of the Autism Spectrum Disorders Clinical and Research Program at NYU Langone Medical Center in New York City.
Parents' anxiety over their child's safety can lead to social
isolation in some cases, noted Nishawala, who was not involved in
the study. "Your world can get very small," she said, "because you
limit where you go."
So a service dog can make a big difference to the whole family,
Cirulli's team found that service dogs might also benefit
children's behavior. In the two studies they reviewed, parents
generally said their children were better behaved and more
attentive after the family got a service dog.
There are still plenty of questions, though -- about both
therapy dogs and service dogs.
For one, children with an autism spectrum disorder vary widely
in the types of issues they have and their severity. No one is sure
which kids might benefit most from time with a trained pooch,
She said more studies are needed -- not only larger ones, but
also ones with better "definitions." That means making sure the
children involved have been formally diagnosed with a form of
autism, defining what the "therapy" is, and being clear about what
outcomes the study is assessing.
There is a lot of anecdotal evidence that a dog could help bring
a child with autism out of his shell, said Nishawala, but
scientific evidence is just coming in.
Cirulli agreed that better defined studies are key.
It's possible, Cirulli noted, that a dog could have negative
effects on some kids with an autism spectrum disorder. An animal
might, for instance, increase "hyper" behavior.
For parents wondering whether adopting a dog is a good idea, the
answer seems to be, "It depends."
Cirulli pointed out that these studies focused on dogs trained
to be around children with autism. So the findings cannot be
assumed to apply to your average Fido.
You might first want to see how your child reacts to a friend's
or neighbor's dog, Cirulli suggested.
"Getting a dog could be a nice thing for the family," Nishawala agreed. "It could be therapeutic for everyone."
If you are interested in a trained service dog, be prepared for
an investment. It costs about $20,000 to train a dog, and the
family would have to foot much of that bill.
Autism Service Dogs of America has more on which kids might
benefit from a
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