Children with autism could find relief from anxiety by having an animal companion, according to a new study. This finding could help medical professionals develop new treatment methods that use animals to help children with autism spectrum disorders (ASD).

Autism results in challenging social situations, in which people with the disorder have trouble communicating and interacting with others, including members of their peer group. This condition, along with accompanying repetitive behaviors and interests, often results in social isolation.

Researchers examined 38 children with autism, as well as 76 children who don't have the condition. The 114 children were divided into three groups, each containing one autistic child and two free of the disorder. Each of the subjects were fitted with special devices, worn on the wrist, which measured biological responses to social situations, including anxiety. These monitors measured skin conductivity, which changes when subjects are feeling excited, anxious or fearful.

The children were monitored reading a book alone, in order to establish a baseline reading. Later, each subject was asked to read to a pair of other children. Afterward, they took part in a ten-minute group play period — followed by the same amount of time spent with a guinea pig. These rodents were chosen for the experiment due to their gentle disposition and small size.

Autistic children experienced higher levels of anxiety while reading alone or with other children, as well as during group play. However, researchers found anxiety levels in these children were significantly reduced during the time they were interacting with the furry companions.  

Skin conductance did rise in autistic children when they were presented with the animals, but researchers believe that may be due to the youngsters being excited to pet the friendly rodents.

"Previous studies suggest that in the presence of companion animals, children with autism spectrum disorders function better socially. This study provides physiological evidence that the proximity of animals eases the stress that children with autism may experience in social situations," said James Griffin of the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD).

Social skills and other social interactions with other people can be improved in autistic children by the presence of dogs, cats, guinea pigs or other pets, the study concluded. However, investigators stress the findings of this study do not suggest that parents of autistic children should rush out to buy their children pets, as additional studies need to be conducted to better determine the possible benefits of companion animals.

"The researchers speculate that because companion animals offer unqualified acceptance, their presence makes the children feel more secure. Whereas human counterparts inherently pass social judgment, animals are often perceived as sources of unconditional, positive support," the NICHD reported.

Analysis of the role animals can play in easing the effects of autism in children was detailed in the journal Developmental Psychobiology.

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