Research Says This Common Family Pet Could Be Beneficial for Kids on the Spectrum

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I was a little girl when my family adopted a fluffy, furry guinea pig named Snickers. With her endearing squeaks and serious love of carrots, she was precious. But studies suggest that she could have been more than just a pet; she could have also been a beneficial companion for a child on the spectrum.

Through research, we’re finding that children with autism tend to show more social behaviors in the presence of animals. But a recent study went a little deeper than that and probed into the physical effects of animals on kids with ASD. And the study involved guinea pigs!

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Researchers split 99 kids into groups of three—two comprised of neurotypical children, one of children with autism. The kids were asked to read aloud, read silently, interact with each other and toys, and interact with each other and guinea pigs. Meanwhile, researchers tracked the electricity levels in the kids’ skin to gauge emotional responses to each activity.

The results were intriguing. All the children were thrilled in the presence of the guinea pigs, but the children with autism calmed down whereas the neurotypical children got more excited.

From this, the researchers suggested that animals in general could act as a sort of “social buffer” for those on the spectrum. Pets don’t judge; they just love (usually). That love and acceptance could stream into the social scene and calm the anxiety that goes with it.

Though most any animal could have the same effect on a child with ASD, guinea pigs make great first pets for kids. These South American rodents may not be as low-maintenance as, say, a goldfish, but they make up for it by being cute, calm, soft, social, and affectionate. And they are relatively easy to care for. Like any animal, you need to give them food and a clean home, and you also need to give them love and attention (like I said: they’re social creatures). But that could be a real win-win situation if your child responds well to sensory stimulation: your child gets a fun companion who can soothe his/her anxiety, while your guinea pig gets lots of human cuddles!

Of course, every child, animal, and case of ASD is different, so you need to make sure your little one responds well to a prospective pet and vice versa. Before making any purchases, it’s not a bad idea to gradually expose your child to the pet you’re considering. Have him/her watch it, touch it, and eventually hold it. If all goes well, congratulations! They make a splendid match—just like this sweet little boy and his furry friend!

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What have been your experiences with pets? Share them with us!

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A. Stout received a Bachelor of Arts in Writing through Grand Valley State University, graduating Magna Cum Laude in 2015. In addition to being a passionate autism advocate, she is a member of various fandoms, a study abroad alumna, and an animal lover. She dreams of publishing novels and traveling all over the world someday.