As any dog walker knows, it's easy — unavoidable, even — to strike up conversations with strangers when accompanied by a canine friend. Smaller animals like rabbits and turtles can also lubricate social interactions.
Given this effect, Maggie O'Haire, a doctoral candidate in psychology at the University of Queensland, wondered if animals could also help children with autism spectrum disordersconnect with other people.
As it turns out, they can.
In a study described in the latest PLOS ONE, O'Haire and her colleagues introduced two guinea pigs into 15 different classrooms and looked at how the presence of these furry creatures affected the interactions of autistic children with adults and non-autistic kids.
The researchers found that autistic children were significantly more talkative and cheerful in the presence of guinea pigs than in the presence of toys. The children were also more likely to look at faces, make physical contact, and interact with other children and adults.
O'Haire has several theories as to why animals might have this effect.