Guinea Pig Ownership and Social Skill Improvement of Children with Autism Spectrum Disorder

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A growing number of children within the United States of America are suffering from debilitating deficiencies in communication and social interaction (Matson, 2011). Autism Spectrum Disorder, according to most recent statics, estimates that approximately 1 in 59 children living in the United States (Baio, 2018). Small animal pets may be a resourceful and natural way for children with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) to increase their social ability. Social competence allows children to practice the skills they learn while developing and interacting amongst their peers to refine those learned skills.

With ASD targeting the social realms of the child is important to look at the previous studies done with guinea pigs to determine if small animal pets are a good way to curtail the deficiencies caused by ASD. Social problems and disabilities in todays society can become the point of focus for bullies and harassment, but with the help of guinea pigs the effects of bullying can be diminished. The effects of bullying have been extensively studied and it is well known that bullying overall is harmful. For children with ASD the bullying that takes place at school, due to their disability and its effect on the child, can extend pass the classroom and cause maladjusted behavioral traits to show in the home as well (O’Haire et al. 2014; Kasara, 2007).

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When, however, a Guinea pig was introduced into the classrooms with children who suffered from ASD results showed improvement in ASD children’s social skills, including their social approach behavior, functioning, and social withdraws (O’Haire et al. 2014). This makes sense as children with ASD would prefer animal contact to that of toys or children (Celani, 2002; O’Haire et al. 2013). Having the presence of a guinea pig in the classroom allowed the children both with ASD and without the ability to communicate and interact over a commonality: the class guinea pig. By interacting with a guinea pig at school improvements were seen but the pupils studied were not allowed to take it home with them.

Children aren’t just socially interacting at school, but they are also emotionally interacting with peers as well. While the, rejection, bullying and other exclusionary stresses can affect the home life (Lytle and Todd, 2009). It would be beneficial to keep a small pet animal such that as a guinea pig in the home. Because it is not feasible to put a guinea pig in every classroom child both with ASD and without are missing out on several possible benefits. However, with over 24 million small animals as pets and approximately 80 million American homes with any type of pet it can reasonably inferred that is easier for responsible parents and guardians to obtain and keep a guinea pig than it is for a school too (Heugten, 2015).

The benefits of keeping a pet at home include benefits to emotional development such as self-esteem, cognitive development through improvements in areas of language and verbal skills, as well as increase in social competence (Endenburg and Lith, 2011). Each of these crucial areas, emotional, social, and cognitive, are affected by ASD. Children with ASD could see improves in these areas. While they are all connected without improvement in emotional and cognitive skills social skills can be difficult to improve. This study also, although indirectly, shows clear connections between the human psyche and companion animals, even if those animals are service or working animals. The bonds developed between most owners and their companion animal are strong as evident by the number of pets and money spent on food, care and toys each year.

Besides the known benefits of having an animal on the premises the ownership of pet, or guinea pig can allow the child to take responsibility for the companion animal while strengthen the bond between the animal and improving, through ownership responsibilities and play, and social-emotionally development (Ward et al. 2017). The responsibility factor is a major key in helping children diagnosed with ASD in improving the quality, not just expanding, of their social skills by allowing for the building of bonds and friendship with their animals. As previously mentioned, due to bullying, children with ASD can experience exclusion which is a factor in assessing the degree of depressive symptoms.

By becoming more responsible for a companion animal, such as a guinea pig, ASD children showed fewer depressive symptoms and, due to bond building companionship between the child and animal, showed positive friendship benefits with their peers (Ward et al. 2017). Friendship quality, rather positive or negative, has been shown to affect to the social skills of children (Berndt 2002). Because friendship has been found to influence the social skills and social aspects of a child’s life, it is imperative that a child with ASD who has reduced social skills, due to the disease and consequences that come with it, such as bullying, can get the benefits associated with owning and becoming responsible for a guinea pig.

Guinea pigs are specifically ideal for children who also have ASD. The nature of guinea pigs along with the responsibility involvements allows for a child to be able to take more control in the ownership and care taking of the animal than that of a larger species companion animal. Guinea pigs are diurnal, unlike some small animal pets which are nocturnal, they can be handled with relative ease, and are not typically aggressive (O’Haire et al. 2013). They also require less of a time requirement for care, compared to larger companion animals, which can allow children to better maintain them. They are generally also less expensive to own versus larger companion animals. Due to their small size, housing, food, toys, treats, and accessories are going to cost less than for an 80-pound dog or 12-pound cat. The reduced price of owning a guinea pig, or two, can be the meaningful difference in the adoption or purchase of a pet to assist with social improvement of a child with ASD.

While studies have shown that the presences, ownership, and care taking responsibilities of a guinea pig may show improvement of children who suffer with ASD more study should be done to confirm the conclusions reached. Longitudinal investigates the past participants of studies like the ones cited would beneficial as one could measure the long-term social effects that companion animal and guinea pig ownership has. Research and study specifically involving guinea pig ownership and caretaking should be looked at as most studies involve show the general incline of social skills amongst ownership and caretaking of all companion animals. Studies should also be conducted and replicated with similar parameters as the ones cited but with a focus on home ownership and responsibility and not solely on ownership and responsibilities in educational settings where the child is only exposed to interactions with the animal at school.

By focusing on home guinea pig ownership specifically, a stronger correlation can be made between the improvement of emotional, social, and cognitive development of a child with ASD and the use of guinea pigs as and effective way to enhance the social abilities and skills of the child. Emotional and cognitive confidence are auxiliary factors for the growth in social skills and research into how these auxiliary factors and affected by guinea pig ownership would also lead to how much of an influence they play into the social improvement aspect. By reviewing current materials and studies in the fields of animal science, medicine, and psychology, the effects of guinea ownership are a positive one and can improve social skills and abilities on children with ASD.

This comes from the bond of caring for and being responsible for a small animal. The bonds developed and interactions with the guinea pig can transfer over to interactions with other human beings as demonstrated by having guinea pigs in classroom setting. Guinea pigs make for ideal companion animals alternatives for younger children who cannot handle the responsibilities of a more exotic or larger animal. By allowing them to care for guinea pigs a confidence is gained that allows the child to develop emotionally as well as socially. Emotional confidence can play a major role in the development of social skills as children with ASD face issues that most of their peers do not. This is also good for the health of the animal being raised, if done correctly, as it allows the animal to also develop a bond with its caretaker ad presumably live a happier life.

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