A dog can be a big help to a child with autistic spectrum disorder. Living with a dog improved life for both autistic children and their families in a recent study. The children were less stressed, and their parents reported fewer problem behaviors, which likely lowered their stress level, too.

The dogs in the study were not typical pets. They were service dogs.

Before living with the dog, cortisol rose 58% after awakening, but morning cortisol rose only 10% while the child was living with the dog.

Just as guide dogs help people with visual disabilities lead a more normal life, service dogs have long been doing the same for people with physical disabilities. Service dogs are specially bred and trained to help those with disabilities, helping out with tasks such as pushing wheelchairs or picking up objects.

More recently, service dogs have been trained to help people with behavioral disorders such as autism. Among the many functions of an autism service dog is to help the autistic person prioritize certain informational input such as a smoke alarm or doorbell. They may also discourage certain forms of behavior, help people locate objects and perform other functions.

The researchers studied autism service dogs from the Canadian organization MIRA, which has been training autism service dogs since 2003.

Human interaction with pets, including dogs, has been shown to lower stress and is also thought to act as a social catalyst. Noting that there had been no study on the physiological effects of autism service dogs on the children they live with, the Montreal researchers decided to study the effect of these dogs on the children's cortisol levels.

Cortisol is a stress hormone that peaks about a half-hour after a person wakes up and then tends to decrease throughout the day (in the absence of stressful situations). It can be easily measured from a person's saliva.

The researchers from the University of Montreal measured the morning cortisol of 42 children with Autism Syndrome Disorders before, during and after living with an autism service dog. Before living with the dog, cortisol rose 58% after awakening, but morning cortisol rose only 10% while the child was living with the dog. This increased back up to 48% during a short period when the dog was separated from the family. This strongly suggests that the children started their day much less stressed when living with dog.

In addition, parents filled out a questionnaire detailing the behavior of their children before and while living with the dog. On average, the parents listed 33 separate troubling behaviors in their children before living with the dog and only 25 of these while living with the dog, a decrease of nearly 25%. The dogs did not make the problems of autism disappear, but they seem to have helped out.

An article detailing the study appears in the September 2010 issue of the journal Psychoneuroendocrinology.

MIRA is a Canadian organization that has been breeding, training and providing guide and service dogs since 1981 and has given away over 2,000 of them, free of charge. Their website has more information about service dogs, as well as downloadable application forms for people who might benefit from them. The site will also have a specific section about autism research, a section that is not currently complete.