"Kids with autism do not always readily engage with others, but if there is a pet in the home that the child bonds with and a visitor starts asking about the pet, the child may be more likely to respond," said Gretchen Carlisle, research fellow at the University of Missouri in US.

Pets often serve as 'social lubricants', Carlisle said. Dogs and other pets play an important role in individuals' social lives, and they can act as catalysts for social interaction.

For the study, the researcher surveyed 70 families who had children with autism between the ages of 8 and 18.

"When I compared the social skills of children with autism who lived with dogs to those who did not, the children with dogs appeared to have greater social skills," Carlisle added.

"More significantly, the data revealed that children with any kind of pet in the home reported being more likely to engage in behaviour such as introducing themselves, asking for information or responding to other people's questions," said Carlisle.

When pets are present in social settings or a classroom, children talk and engage more with one another.

This effect also seems to apply to children with autism and could account for their increased assertiveness when pets are around.

The findings appeared in the Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders.

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