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The Family Cat Could Be Good Medicine for Kids With Autism

By Denise Mann HealthDay Reporter

TUESDAY, Jan. 19, 2021 (HealthDay News) -- Cats have a long history of boosting people's moods and brightening their days. And that's probably true for kids on the autism spectrum as well, new research shows.

The small study suggests that adopting a shelter cat may help reduce separation anxiety and improve empathy in kids with an autism spectrum disorder (ASD).

"Cats, and companion animals in general, offer unconditional acceptance and someone to talk to that listens, and caring for an animal can help with learning responsibility," said study author Gretchen Carlisle. She's a research scientist at the Research Center for Human-Animal Interaction at the University of Missouri, in Columbia.

ASD is a brain disorder that affects social skills, communication and impulse control. In the United States, it affects one child in 54, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The new study included 11 families that had children with autism between the ages of 6 and 14. The families were followed for 18 weeks after adopting a shelter cat. The researchers used standardized social skills and anxiety scales to pick children who were likely to respond well to a pet. The cats were also screened for temperament.

Overall, parents reported an instant bond between child and cat, and the bond remained strong over time even with the added responsibility of caring for the pet.

The researchers found that the kids' separation anxiety, bullying and overactivity declined over the study period and they showed more empathy after adopting the cat. Most families kept the cat after the study ended. The new findings were published online recently in the Journal of Pediatric Nursing.

Carlisle said it's not that cats are a better choice than dogs, but feline companions may be particularly well suited for some children with autism and their families.

"Many children with autism have sensory issues and when a dog is barking in your face, it can be really overwhelming, whereas cats just sit beside you and are less overwhelming from a sensory standpoint," she explained.

Cats can also be much easier to care for, especially by parents of kids with autism who might already be overwhelmed and stressed, Carlisle said.

But, she added, the right match is key.

"We specifically selected cats aged 10 months to 4 years because there is prior work that younger cats are more social with kids with autism, and adult temperament tends to be set at 10 months with cats, so these are younger cats with an adult temperament," Carlisle said. A follow-up study is looking at the welfare of cats adopted by these families.

Several autism experts agreed that adopting a pet can have benefits for kids with autism and their families, as long as they know what they are getting into.

"Though small and preliminary, these are promising findings that mirror what I see in practice," said Dr. Melissa Nishawala, director of the Autism Spectrum Disorder Research and Clinical Program at Hassenfeld Children's Hospital at NYU Langone Health in New York City. "This is a study of pets or companion animals as opposed to service or therapy animals, so it is something that any family could pursue and gives a roadmap of how to do it well for families who are interested."

James McPartland, director of the Yale Developmental Disabilities Clinic in New Haven, Conn., agreed that animals can be soothing and help teach kids with autism responsibility.

"Getting a pet is a big responsibility and there are many people who may find it's more responsibility than they wanted," he added. "So it's important to think through what is realistic for your family before adopting a pet."

Tom Frazier, former chief science officer for the advocacy group Autism Speaks, agreed.

"Families should consider how much time and energy they have to devote to pet care, their child's ability and desire to be a part of that, and what their goals are before making any decision about pet ownership," Frazier said.

More information

The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals lists adoptable cats near you.

SOURCES: Gretchen Carlisle, PhD, MEd, RN, research scientist, Research Center for Human-Animal Interaction, University of Missouri College of Veterinary Medicine, Columbia, Mo; Melissa Nishawala, MD, medical director, Autism Spectrum Disorder Clinical Research Program, Hassenfeld Children's Hospital at NYU Langone Health, New York City, and clinical assistant professor, child and adolescent psychiatry, NYU Grossman School of Medicine, New York City; James McPartland, PhD, professor, child psychiatry and psychology, and director, Yale Developmental Disabilities Clinic, New Haven, Conn.; Tom Frazier, PhD, professor, psychology, John Carroll University, Cleveland, and former chief science officer, Autism Speaks; Journal of Pediatric Nursing, Dec. 5, 2020, online

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