This article is about a discussion on the benefits of domestic cats to autistic children and to the families of those children. The first point to make is that a study (764 participants) published on 4 March 2020 in the online journal Springer Link, tells us that parents with lower incomes perceived benefits in having a cat in the family as they reduced stress both in the autistic child and their parents.
The study was about pets in general and therefore I must add that in parents owning both a dog and a cat they perceived more benefit from a dog than a cat. The parents who thought that their companion animals benefited them had less stress.
The implication is that professionals in the field of advising parents of children with autism should consider recommending a companion animal to benefit them generally and lower parental stress. Autism should strictly speaking be referred to as “autism spectrum disorder” (ASD).
Study – Exploratory study of cat adoption in families of children with autism: Impact on children’s social skills and anxiety
In another study titled: Exploratory study of cat adoption in families of children with autism: Impact on children’s social skills and anxiety, the conclusion was that, “This exploratory study found introduction of a cat into the home may have a positive impact on children with ASD and their parents. Based on this initial finding, future studies with larger sample sizes are recommended.”
They found that cat adoption was associated with greater empathy and less separation anxiety in children with ASD. The kids had fewer behavioural problems such as bullying and hyperactivity.
Cannabis – autism in children
Another point worth making comes from The Times newspaper this morning (Aug 2020) in which it is reported that children whose mothers take cannabis during pregnancy are almost twice as likely to develop autism according to a big study. The research involved half a million women. Those who used cannabis during pregnancy had a higher chance of giving birth to an autistic child. The incidence of autism in children if the mother took cannabis was 4 per 1,000 person years compared to 2.42 among unexposed children. The research paper was published in Nature Medicine.
Separately, children benefit in other ways.
Study: Affectionate Interactions of Cats with Children Having Autism Spectrum Disorder
The overall conclusion of this study was as follows:
“Overall, participants reported that ASD children’s behaviors indicated that they valued the relationship with the cat, similar to typically developing children, pointing to the importance and potential usefulness of selecting affectionate and compatible cats for ASD children.”
In a study titled: Affectionate Interactions of Cats with Children Having Autism Spectrum Disorder, it was found that the cats concerned were nearly always affectionate towards the ASD child but not towards adults. In other words, these affectionate cats were more affectionate towards the specified child than to adults or indeed other children of the family. They were, therefore, more attached to and non-aggressive towards the ASD child and often preferred that specified child rather than other children all the adults in the home.
They found that most of the ASD children (55%) always or normally wanted to hold and pet the cat concerned. They found that they interacted with the cat for 1-2 hours per day. The children demonstrated a strong interest in the cat. Despite that most of the day was not spent interacting with the cat.
Not every interaction is positive. Of the 64 respondents in the study 54 parents commented regarding the interaction between cat and child. 40 comments were positive, three comments were neutral and nine were negative.
The researchers concluded that “most parents of ASD children reported affectionate behaviour to the children by the cat.”.
The cats provided a way for the autistic child to have a positive relationship. If there was a limit to the quality of the relationship it was because of the cats who were unwilling to be affectionate rather than the child being disinterested.
As expected, they found that the character of the cats varied a lot. It’s important to select the right kind of cat. Clearly one low in aggression and confident is the ideal. They should be socially outgoing and affectionate. A cat interacting with an ASD child did not heighten any aggression in that cat. In other words, there is no difference in the cat’s response in dealing with either a non-ASD child and an ASD child.
They found that most children with ASD like to hold the cat. 20% of the cats were very affectionate towards the child. They propose that when adopting a kitten for an ASD child that they “could do well to adopt a calm kitten at weaning, assuring that it has frequent gentle interactions with people of all ages, especially ASD children.”
Some more studies