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Dogs Improve Quality of Life for Families with Children with Autism, MU Study Finds

New social media mapping methods allow MU researchers to analyze posts by families affected by autism

February 25th, 2013

Story Contact: Nathan Hurst, 573-882-6217,

Families who have children with autism spectrum disorders (ASD) are often faced with significant challenges, such as caregiver burden, sleep deprivation, and psychological distress. Because of these difficulties, ownership of pet and service dogs by families with ASD children has received growing attention as a way to provide benefits for these children and their families. However, there has been little research on how dog ownership affects families with ASD children. Now, through a novel method of monitoring social media, interdisciplinary researchers from the University of Missouri have found that families with ASD children regard dog ownership as having a positive impact on their households. Rebecca Johnson, director the MU Research Center for Human-Animal Interaction (ReCHAI) and professor in the MU Sinclair School of Nursing and College of Veterinary Medicine, says these findings further indicate the positive effects animal interactions can have on children with autism.

“We are beginning to learn how companion animals may provide comfort and unconditional love to families of children with autism, and to the children themselves,” Johnson said. “This may be particularly important given the very high stress levels of these families.  Pet dogs can have a calming effect in stressful situation as has been shown widely in research.”

For their paper, which was presented at the 2012 International Communication Association conference, the MU researchers analyzed word clusters such as “family” “pet” and “love” from thousands of Internet forum and social media posts by members of families with ASD children. Based on the researchers’ analysis of these word groups, they concluded that dogs trained to be service or therapy animals can help children with autism in their social and school lives as well as improve the overall quality of life for all family members. Gretchen Carlisle, a former doctoral student in the MU Sinclair School of Nursing, says while dogs can have a positive impact on families, it is important to adequately match dogs with families based on their specific needs.

“Pet dogs are common in families with typically developing children and also among families of children with autism,” Carlisle said. “Most parents reported that their children were attached to their dogs and children said they had closer bonds with small dogs. Considering the special needs of children with autism, selecting the right dog for the right family may be very important for successful family/pet relationships.”

Glen Cameron, the Maxine Wilson Gregory Chair in Journalism Research and professor of strategic communication at the MU School of Journalism, says this newly developed method of mapping social media can be very useful for analyzing Internet content for a wide variety of purposes.

“This study showcases methods and measures for taming the vast content of social media such as blogs, tweets, and Facebook postings that can shed light on internal policies and external communication programs of organizations,” Cameron said. “While this research offers important implications, particularly for health professionals and campaign planners in the autism community about dog ownership in families with children with ASD, our findings and insights regarding social media monitoring and analysis can also be applied to health organizations and companies in the healthcare and public health sector.”

This research is a result of collaboration through the One Health, One Medicine and Media for the Future areas of Mizzou Advantage. Mizzou Advantage is a program that focuses on four areas of strength at MU. The goals of Mizzou Advantage are to strengthen existing faculty networks, create new networks and propel Mizzou’s research, instruction and other activities to the next level.