Autistic children may prefer cats as pets because they don't hold eye contact very long, experts say


Cats may make better pets for children on the autistic spectrum because they don’t hold eye contact as long as dogs, according to a new report.

Scientists in France studied autistic children as they interacted with their pets and found dogs exhibited more sustained gazes, while cats produced an equal percentage of glances and gazes.

The researchers found neuroatypical kids gave more attention to cats than dogs, as sustained eye contact can be stressful for someone not adept at interpreting interactive cues. 

While many dog owners exhibit an increase of oxytocin as a result of their dogs’ long gazes, such behavior can increase stress and anxiety in someone not adept at reading cues. 

Researchers in France found that cats were more likely to glance at humans and look away than dogs, who exhibited sustained gazes. That may make felines more suitable pets for children on the autistic spectrum, who can feel stressed by sustained eye contact

Researchers in France found that cats were more likely to glance at humans and look away than dogs, who exhibited sustained gazes. That may make felines more suitable pets for children on the autistic spectrum, who can feel stressed by sustained eye contact

A team of scientists in western France surveyed 42 children between the ages of 6 and 12, 19 of whom were neurotypical and 23 of whom were diagnosed with autistic spectrum disorders.

All the animals involved in the study were family pets, well known to the subjects.

They found that cats exhibited fewer sustained gazes toward children than dogs, and that mutual gazes between the kids and their cats were rare.

Dogs, as social cooperative animals, can use sustained gazes as attempts at bonding or dominance, explained psychologist Marine Grandgeorge, who led the experiment.

‘Cats, as solitary opportunistic gregarious animals, seem to not only have developed a less varied repertoire of visual signals but also rely less upon visual signals for communicating,’ Grandgeorge, a researcher at the University of Rennes, wrote in a new report in the journal Frontiers in Psychology.

While many dog owners exhibit an increase of oxytocin as a result of their dogs’ long gazes, such behavior can increase stress and anxiety in someone not adept at reading cues.

‘Cats don’t hold a stare but tend to look away after short bouts of eye contact, and it’s possible that this feels more comfortable for people with autism,’ Grandgeorge told New Scientist

By analyzing videos made during home visits, her team determined that ‘ASD children displayed much more visual attention with their pet cat than with their pet dog.’

‘Because humans rely a lot upon visual communication in their own social encounters, where direct gazes play a major role from early on, they may be especially sensitive to the gazing behavior of their dogs,’ she theorized.

‘People with ASD, with a less typical pattern of interaction, may be more comfortable with the less ‘invasive’ short glances of cats.’ 

While there are plenty of ASD kids who thrive with dogs, the high energy level of most canines can be intimidating and unpredictable to some.

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According to Autism Parenting magazine, cats give children something low-key to focus on, easing the way for social interactions with people.

Interacting with a cat can instill confidence, teach empathy and compassion, and relieve anxiety in ASD kids.

It can also impart responsibility without all the work of caring for a dog.

In her book, A Friend Like Ben, author Julia Romp wrote about a stray cat that helped her autistic son, George, come out of his shell.

When Ben went missing, George retreated back into silence until the cat was recovered.

‘George, Ben and I are a family – and we’re complete,’ Romp told the Guardian in 2010.



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