Cats can be loving and playful companions for anyone, but for children with autism, a new study suggests a cat can reduce separation anxiety and increase empathy. Researchers from the University of Missouri studied children with autism aged 6 to 14 after they adopted a cat into their family with very positive results.
“We found the main benefit of these companion animals is their unconditional acceptance,” said researcher Gretchen Carlisle. Although a child’s behavior should be carefully considered before introducing a pet to a family, all participating families reported an immediate bond between child and pet that lasted over time. Additionally, the families found that their child’s anxiety decreased over time after introducing the cat.
As many children with autism are sensitive to loud noises or other sensory stimuli, cats can be preferable to dogs as they are more of a calming presence and have more predictable behavior patterns. The researchers screened the cats before introducing them to families to rule out any potentially problematic behavior but noted that for parents of children with autism, who report higher levels of stress than other parents, a cat can be the perfect companion and distraction for a child with autism.
If you’ve ever experienced the soothing effect of a cat sleeping gently on your lap, you won’t be surprised by these results. Pets have served as companions and sources of support for children and adults alike for centuries, which is probably why pet owners experienced lower levels of stress during pandemic shutdowns. For children with autism, their environment and surroundings play an amplified role in success and behavior, so it’s uplifting to see that a cat can play such a beneficial role in these children’s lives.