by Shaun Heasley | November 4, 2022
Pet ownership leads to better mental health outcomes in adults with autism, new research suggests, and the gains exist no matter what type of companion animal an individual has.
In a study of 735 adults, 326 of whom had autism, researchers found that pets helped people with the developmental disorder better manage their mood and socialize.
“We looked at loneliness, social isolation, social anxiety, social support and overall satisfaction with life,” said Liam Cross of Edge Hill University in England who worked on the study published recently in the Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders. “Pet ownership led to a higher quality of life, less anxiety and a wide range of other benefits.”
Participants completed questionnaires designed to evaluate their social behaviors, autism traits and other factors. Those who owned pets were also asked about the animal and they were assessed to determine their level of attachment to the pet and how much they attributed human characteristics to their pet.
Individuals with autism were less likely to own a pet. But, among those who did, the researchers found that they were just as attached to their pets as typically developing adults. While those on the spectrum generally reported a lower quality of life than others, they were more satisfied with life if they had a pet.
“It didn’t matter what kind of pets people owned, dogs, cats, rats, even fish all had similar effects. Almost every participant in the study highlighted a close bond with their pets that went hand in hand with improvements in overall quality of life,” Cross said.
Individuals with autism were more likely to have an animal other than a dog. They were also more inclined to substitute their pet for a person, the study found.
The researchers conducted more extended interviews with 16 of the study participants with autism who had animals. They reported that having a pet motivated them to be more active, helped them deal with stress and they said they felt safer and more natural interacting with others when their pet was around.
“All the situations that make people with autism uncomfortable don’t exist with animals, they’re gone. No awkward conversation, no unpredictable events and it’s an easy environment,” one study participant indicated.
The study noted numerous barriers to pet ownership for adults with autism including housing limitations, cost and the ability to care for an animal. But, the researchers said that the interviews showed that pet ownership could also help some people with autism overcome challenges.
“For many getting a pet was a huge breakthrough, helping them break out of unhealthy routines which could be quite liberating,” said Gray Atherton of Edge Hill University who worked on the study. “I think the main takeaway is that despite worries that they can’t look after animals, people diagnosed with autism are more than capable of looking after animals and can see huge benefits from doing so.”