Wednesday, August 15, 2012
Dear Ms. Gardner,
Thank you for your article, "Pets May Help Kids With Autism Develop Social Skills,” and for highlighting the fact that young children with autism, like other children, may enjoy and benefit from having a pet in their home. As with many articles about autism treatment, this is a heartwarming story, and we do not dispute the idea that pets may provide wonderful opportunities for children with autism to enter into social exchanges with others. Furthermore, the empathy and responsibility that may develop as a function of pet ownership should not be discounted.
At a time when there are 400+ treatments for autism, journalists must be very careful how they pitch their message, however touching and seemingly benign an intervention may appear. To this end, we would like to share a few concerns:
1) Your article provides an incomplete description of the status of social skills intervention for children with autism. We suggest a more accurate title: "Pets May Help Kids With Autism Develop Social Skills, but Teachers and Providers Using Evidence-Based Practice Help Even More.” The social deficits discussed in your article are at the core of an autism diagnosis. There exists a body of treatment research that targets these deficits which require careful and comprehensive intervention. Treatment methods derived from this research help children with autism forge positive relationships with others by directly targeting important skills such as cooperative play, conversation skills, sharing and turn-taking. Such procedures are carried out every day in schools and center-based programs. Unfortunately, your article did not mention science-based interventions to address social skills.
2) In the realm of scientific research, there is an important saying: “Correlation does not imply causation.” In this case, parents who obtained a pet after their child turns four reported the highest level of “offering to share" and "offering comfort” behaviors. It is very plausible that these pro-social characteristics in children with autism were the actual causal factor in the parents deciding to obtain a pet in the first place. Alternatively, a third factor, such as a family making a commitment to owning a pet, may have occasioned shifts in parents’ behavior that benefited the child with autism as well. In any case, a causal relationship between pet ownership and an increase in social skills is not established.
3) Your readers should be aware that the research on social skills directly measures the objectively defined social behaviors of children with autism and does not exclusively rely on parental report, which, like all subjective measures, is not always accurate. Any intervention posited to improve social skills must adequately and objectively measure those social skills; otherwise, claims regarding effectiveness are speculative.
4) The type of research that truly advances the conversation about autism treatment is one that demonstrates that a new intervention yields comparable - but ideally superior - outcomes to already established practice. Based on the available scientific literature, animal-assisted therapy is neither comparable nor superior to established practice. Unfortunately, a reader may infer from your article that pets are an effective social skills intervention and may postpone other interventions that are grounded in science. Considering that intervention should begin as soon as possible in the life of a child with autism, that would be unfortunate.
5) We also wanted to share some important information about the on-line journal you cited in your article, PloS ONE. A review of their stated Editorial and Peer Review Process (http://www.plosone.org/static/information.action#2) indicates that they employ a unique review process, with 69% of 2,216 manuscripts accepted in a recent 3-month period. The journal charges authors $1,350 for publication of their article. It may very well be that this particular venue for the dissemination of new scientific findings is not as trustworthy as a journal employing a standard peer-reviewed process.
We believe it is important and necessary to make the distinction between the joys of a relationship with a pet and the clinical effects of “pet therapy” or any other “therapy” for autism. With 400 purported treatments for autism, a billion-dollar industry has emerged. If a journalist picked one treatment per month, he or she would have enough to write about for the remainder of his/her career. Please consider following this story with one that highlights a social skills intervention that is science based and equally heartwarming.
David Celiberti, Ph.D., BCBA-D and Daniel W. Mruzek, Ph.D., BCBA-D
Association for Science in Autism Treatment