Results of human-dog relationships studies on social reciprocity in children with autism encouraging but further research needed


Given that autism spectrum disorders are characterised by deficits in social reciprocity and communication, there is a school of thought that suggests that exploiting the emotional aspects of human-dog relationships may hold potential to overcome some difficulties of people with ASD to relate and interact effectively with others.

The authors of this review set out to look at six published studies into the effects of brief interactions with dogs and the effects of introducing dogs in families with a child diagnosed with ASD. The studies mainly looked at social behaviours and language use.

They found a number of encouraging results in the studies, but the sample sizes were small and the designs had some methodological flaws.

They conclude that it is too early to suggest this intervention as way forward, but that results were sufficiently encouraging to point to the need for further research with better designs and larger samples to strengthen the evidence base and enable the intervention to be used in a clinical setting.

The authors also point to the potential application of child-dog interaction analysis as a tool for screening for early signs of autism.

Use of assistance and therapy dogs for children with autism spectrum disorders: a critical review of the current evidence, Berry A et al., in  Section of Behavioral Neurosciences, Department of Cell Biology and Neurosciences, Istituto Superiore di Sanità, Rome, Italy.

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John Northfield

After qualifying as a social worker, John worked in community learning disability teams before getting involved in a number of long-stay hospital closure programmes, working to develop individual plans for people moving into their own homes. He worked for BILD, helping to develop the Quality Network and was editorial lead for the NHS electronic library learning disabilities specialist collection. This led him to found the Learning Disabilities Elf site with Andre Tomlin as a way of making the evidence accessible to practitioners in health and social care. Most recently he has worked as part of Mencap's national quality team and also been involved in a number of national website developments, including the General Medical Council's learning disabilities site.

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