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Autism Spectrum Disorders Health Center

Can Therapy Dogs Help Kids With Autism?

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Two studies focused on service dogs -- trained dogs that live with the family. The animals serve mainly to keep kids with autism safe; when the family goes out, the child will be literally tethered to the dog to keep from running off or getting hurt.

"That can be a huge relief for families," said Dr. Melissa Nishawala, medical director of the Autism Spectrum Disorders Clinical and Research Program at NYU Langone Medical Center in New York City.

Parents' anxiety over their child's safety can lead to social isolation in some cases, noted Nishawala, who was not involved in the study. "Your world can get very small," she said, "because you limit where you go."

So a service dog can make a big difference to the whole family, Nishawala said.

Cirulli's team found that service dogs might also benefit children's behavior. In the two studies they reviewed, parents generally said their children were better behaved and more attentive after the family got a service dog.

There are still plenty of questions, though -- about both therapy dogs and service dogs.

For one, children with an autism spectrum disorder vary widely in the types of issues they have and their severity. No one is sure which kids might benefit most from time with a trained pooch, Nishawala noted.

She said more studies are needed -- not only larger ones, but also ones with better "definitions." That means making sure the children involved have been formally diagnosed with a form of autism, defining what the "therapy" is, and being clear about what outcomes the study is assessing.

There is a lot of anecdotal evidence that a dog could help bring a child with autism out of his shell, said Nishawala, but scientific evidence is just coming in.

Cirulli agreed that better defined studies are key.

It's possible, Cirulli noted, that a dog could have negative effects on some kids with an autism spectrum disorder. An animal might, for instance, increase "hyper" behavior.

For parents wondering whether adopting a dog is a good idea, the answer seems to be, "It depends."

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