By Ellen Seidman
May 28, 2015
A child holds a guinea pig

Turns out that pets can be a lot more than just man's best friend. While research has previously found that companion animals help kids with autism function better socially, a new study shows that children on the spectrum who played with animals had significant drops in anxiety and social stress compared to when they played alone or with peers.

"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, PhD, of the National Institute of Health's Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Develop. Researchers had 114 kids ages 5 to 12 years old play with guinea pigs, chosen because of their petite size and good nature. They also had kids read silently, do a scripted activity involving reading out loud, and free play with peers. They speculate that because companion animals offer unconditional acceptance, their presence can make kids with social challenges feel more secure and positively supported.

The researchers caution that this doesn't mean parents of kids with autism should dash out to the pet store and purchase a furry critter. Hopefully, their findings—published in the journal Developmental Psychobiology—could play a role in programs aimed at helping kids with autism develop social skills, they noted. That said, there are many benefits of pets for kids; they can help children learn, encourage nurturing, and even lower the risk for developing pet and dust-mite allergies. Also: Unlike siblings, they'll never fight with you over toys or who got the bigger slice of cake.

Ellen Seidman is a mom of two, editor, and professional snacker who blogs daily at Love That Max. You can find her pondering special needs parenthood and other important topics (such as what her next snack will be) on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and Google+ even though she still hasn't totally figured out what that is.

Image of child holding guinea pig via Shutterstock