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Cats may help increase empathy, decrease anxiety for kids with autism

A study has found cats may help increase empathy while decreasing separation anxiety for children with autism. The findings can have beneficial implications for families considering adopting a companion animal for their child.

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As a former school nurse in the Columbia Public Schools, Gretchen Carlisle would often interact with students with disabilities who took various medications or had seizures throughout the day. At some schools, the special education teacher would bring in dogs, guinea pigs and fish as a reward for good behavior, and Carlisle noticed what a calming presence the pets seemed to be for the students with disabilities.

Now a research scientist at the MU Research Center for Human-Animal Interaction (ReCHAI) in the MU College of Veterinary Medicine, Carlisle studies the benefits that companion animals can have on families. While there is plenty of existing research emphasizing the benefits of dogs for children with autism, Carlisle’s newest study has found cats may help increase empathy while decreasing separation anxiety for children with autism. The findings can have beneficial implications for families considering adopting a companion animal for their child.

“Previous research has shown parents of kids with autism are more stressed than parents of kids with any other disability,” Carlisle said. “If a family is considering adopting a companion animal, we want to provide the best evidence-based information possible so they can make an informed decision, and cats might be more beneficial than dogs to some families.”

In the study, families that had children with autism aged 6-14 were recruited through the MU Thompson Center for Autism and Neurodevelopmental Disorders and monitored after adopting a cat into their home. The cats were screened for temperament to ensure they were calm and a good match for the family. Not only did the families report an instant bond between their child with autism and their new cat, but the bond remained strong over the course of time, and the child’s anxiety decreased over time.

“We found the main benefit of these companion animals is their unconditional acceptance,” Carlisle said. “Some children with autism may have sensory issues or be sensitive to loud noises, so a cat may be an appropriate, comforting pet for some families due to their calming presence.”

Helping families make the best choice for their kids has motivated Carlisle’s research with companion animals, and the study’s findings highlight the benefits of human-animal interaction.

“As a former pediatric nurse, I have always strived to help children, and one thing I learned is that you need to involve the parents so they can make informed choices for their children,” Carlisle said. “I see pets as a way to enhance wellness, and it feels gratifying to provide assistance to families that have a lot on their plate.”

“Exploratory study of cat adoption in families of children with autism: Impact on children’s social skills and anxiety” was recently published in the Journal of Pediatric Nursing.

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Happiness really does come for free

Majority of people reported remarkably high levels of happiness. This was especially true in the communities with the lowest levels of monetization, where citizens reported a degree of happiness comparable to that found in Scandinavian countries which typically rate highest in the world.

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Photo by Lidya Nada from Unsplash.com

Economic growth is often prescribed as a sure way of increasing the well-being of people in low-income countries, but a study led by McGill and the Institute of Environmental Sciences and Technologies at the Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona (ICTA-UAB) suggests that there may be good reason to question this assumption.

The researchers set out to find out how people rate their subjective well-being in societies where money plays a minimal role, and which are not usually included in global happiness surveys. They found that the majority of people reported remarkably high levels of happiness. This was especially true in the communities with the lowest levels of monetization, where citizens reported a degree of happiness comparable to that found in Scandinavian countries which typically rate highest in the world.

The results suggest that high levels of subjective well-being can be achieved with minimal monetization, challenging the perception that economic growth will automatically raise life satisfaction among low-income populations.

Measuring happiness

To explore how monetization affects people’s sense of well-being, the researchers spent time in several small fishing communities, with varying degrees of monetization, in the Solomon Islands and Bangladesh, two very low-income countries. Over a period of a few months, with the help of local translators, they interviewed citizens in both rural and urban areas a number of times. The interviews, which took place both in person and through phone calls at unexpected moments, were designed to elicit information about what constituted happiness for the study subjects, as well as to get a sense of their passing moods, their lifestyle, fishing activities, household income, and level of market integration.

In all, the researchers interviewed 678 people, ranging in age between their mid-twenties and early fifties, with an average age of about 37. Almost 85 % of the study participants were male. The disproportionate number of men in the study was due to the fact that cultural norms in Bangladesh made it difficult to interview women. In the Solomon Islands, responses to the study questions from men and women were not significantly different. However, this is not necessarily applicable to the situation in Bangladesh, as men and women’s social realities and lifestyles differ so much. Further research will need to address whether gender-related societal norms impact the association found in this study.

Early stages of monetization may be detrimental to happiness

The researchers found that in the communities where money was in greater use, such as in urban Bangladesh, residents reported lower levels of happiness.

“Our study hints at possible ways of achieving happiness that are unrelated to high incomes and material wealth,” says Eric Galbraith, a professor in McGill’s Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences and the senior author on the study, which was recently published in PLOS One. “This is important, because if we replicate these results elsewhere and can pinpoint the factors that contribute to subjective well-being, it may help us circumvent some of the environmental costs associated with achieving social well-being in the least developed nations.”

“In less monetized sites, we found that people reported a greater proportion of time spent with family and contact with nature as being responsible for making them happy,” explains Sara Miñarro, the lead author on the study who is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at (ICTA-UAB). “But with increasing monetization, we found that the social and economic factors commonly recognized in industrialized countries played a bigger role. Overall, our findings suggest that monetization, especially in its early stages, may actually be detrimental to happiness.”

Interestingly, while other research has found that technology and access to information from faraway cultures with different lifestyles may affect people’s sense of their own well-being by offering standards to which people compare their own lives, this did not appear to be the case in these communities.

“Happy without money: Minimally monetized societies can exhibit high subjective well-being” by Sara Miñarro, et al was published in PLOS One.

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Picture books can boost physical activity for youth with autism

There are numerous health benefits of exercise, such as pumping blood in your body, better sleep and reduced risk of obesity. Also, if we can get kids with autism more physically engaged, they are more likely to run around and play with their peers, so there are other aspects of their life we can improve as well.

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Photo by Lina Kivaka from Pexels.com

While physical activity is important for everyone, research has shown people with developmental disabilities do not exercise as often as their typically developed peers. In an effort to close this disparity, a researcher at the University of Missouri recently created fitness picture books that help youth with autism exercise more frequently while offering low-income families a simple resource for workout motivation when outdoor fitness equipment might not be accessible.

“There is so much research geared toward helping individuals with autism improve their academic performance, social skills and communication skills, but we also need to remember how important physical activity is for living a healthy lifestyle,” said Lorraine Becerra, an assistant teaching professor at the MU College of Education. “There are numerous health benefits of exercise, such as pumping blood in your body, better sleep and reduced risk of obesity. Also, if we can get kids with autism more physically engaged, they are more likely to run around and play with their peers, so there are other aspects of their life we can improve as well.”

Becerra is also a behavior analyst at the Thompson Center for Autism and Neurodevelopmental Disorders. Since some of her former clients with autism had body mass indexes that had risen to unhealthy levels due to excessive sedentary behavior, their caregivers asked Becerra to develop creative ways to encourage their children to exercise more.

So, in a recent research study, Becerra created fitness picture books that contained step-by-step images of various exercises, such as jumping jacks, bear crawls and lunges. The picture books were successfully utilized to increase the amount of time the individuals with autism engaged in physical activity.

Having previously worked in low-income school districts with limited financial resources, Becerra understands the need to find cost-efficient methods to help kids with autism exercise more frequently.

“It’s important to remember that some schools might not have a jungle gym or many age-appropriate resources for kids to play with,” Becerra said. “The great thing about the picture books is they provide simple, engaging exercises that can be done in a wide variety of settings, like a school playground, backyard or even an empty field at a park. It is also a quick and easy way for caregivers or teachers to provide organized structure during flexible free time, such as during recess.”

With recent advancements in technology and entertainment, youth are increasingly spending more of their time sitting in front of televisions, tablets and personal electronic devices. Becerra is passionate about reminding youth — particularly individuals on the autism spectrum — about the importance of scheduling time for physical activity.

“These lifelong habits start when you are young,” Becerra said. “Making time to run around and establish those exercise routines early in life will help youth maintain those habits in their adolescent and adult years.”

“The effect of photographic activity schedules on moderate-to-vigorous physical activity in children with autism spectrum disorder” was recently published in the Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis.

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Taking the fear out of driver education

Educational programs often use fear-based messaging and films of crash scenes to reduce risky driving behavior among young people. But does this “scary” approach work?

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Photo by Laura Gariglio from Unsplash.com

New drivers between the ages of 15 and 25 account for nearly half of the more than one million road deaths that occur worldwide each year, according to the World Health Organization. Educational programs often use fear-based messaging and films of crash scenes to reduce risky driving behavior among young people. But does this “scary” approach work?

A new study published in the journal Risk Analysis suggests that fear-based messaging fails to reduce risky driving behavior, while fear-based Virtual Reality (VR) films depicting a violent collision may actually lead young drivers to take more chances behind the wheel.

A team of psychologists led by University of Antwerp researcher Clara Alida Cutello, PhD, conducted a study of 146 students who had been legally driving for less than five years. The researchers examined the impact of both content (fear vs. positive) and delivery mode (2D vs. VR) of driver safety intervention programs.

Fear-based driver ed films often show terrible crash scenes in graphic detail. The assumption behind this approach is that arousing a sense of fear by depicting a serious consequence such as death will persuade young people to drive more carefully. Positively framed films take the opposite approach, using humor and empathy and modeling safe driving behaviors that result in positive consequences.

Three tests were used to gauge the risk-taking behavior of the young drivers before and after participating in the intervention program. One was a Driver Behavior Questionnaire. The other was the Vienna Risk-Taking Test on traffic, which asks participants to watch video clips of driving situations from the point of view of the driver and choose whether they view a situation as too risky. For example, choosing whether to pass another car in icy conditions. A third test was a 21-item Emotional Arousal Scale that measured the level of emotional arousal (such as feeling afraid) after watching a film.

The results showed that participants who viewed the fear-based VR film reported riskier driving behaviors afterward, while those who viewed a positively framed VR film exhibited the greatest reduction in risky driving behavior. This finding supports other research that has shown that exposing participants to an extreme and graphic collision tends to activate defensive mechanisms, such as paying attention for a shorter time, disengaging, rejecting a message, and an increase in risky behaviors.

“Fear appeals have been used in many health and environmental campaigns, such as smoking, anti-drug, safe sex, and HIV prevention campaigns,” says Dr. Cutello. “Further experimental research is needed to determine whether the use of fear is effective.”

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