Therapy Pets For Autism

Autism has been known to cause an array of social, emotional, and behavioral problems on the youngster. As a parent, it is likely you are already tapping from every resource in this world to get your child healed. Research has shown that pets can help autistic children improve their ability to attend to people and things around them. There is one particular type of therapy pet, the autism service dogs, who can provide all the support your child needs in order to address their autism problem.

As we all know, Autism is a mental disorder that affects a person’s behavior, interaction and development in different ways. The younger the age of diagnosis, the better it is for the child. I would like to discuss how a specially trained therapy dog has helped an autistic boy.

Therapy Animals for Autism

Therapy animals have been proven to be of great benefit to children with autism. They can help children learn to read, interact with their peers, and improve their confidence and self-esteem.

The number of therapy pets that are trained to work with children with autism is growing every day, but there are still many children who do not have access to one. This is where you come in! If you would like to become a volunteer for a therapy animal organization or a trainer who works with these animals,

Therapy pets are becoming a more and more common way to help children with autism.

The idea behind therapy pets is that they can offer a calming effect on the child, which helps them focus and calm down in the presence of the pet. The pets can also provide an outlet for the child to express themselves through their interactions with the animal. This kind of interaction has been shown to improve social skills, communication skills, and even motor skills in autistic children.

Therapy Pets For Autism

What is autism spectrum disorder?

Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is referred to as a spectrum, since it reflects a wide variety of symptom severity and intellectual abilities. The core symptoms of ASD are challenges in social interactions and restricted, repetitive behaviors and interests [1]. Estimates suggest that 1 in 59 children in the U.S. are affected by ASD [2].

Why include animals in autism intervention?

There are several suggested reasons that animals may be valuable in autism intervention for some individuals.

  1. Social Facilitation: Evidence points to a potential ‘social facilitation’ effect of animals. People may be more likely to engage socially when in the presence of animals [3, 4]. This effect may address the social challenges that people with autism face in their daily lives. Studies have found that children with autism not only interact more socially with their peers in the presence of animals, but also smile more [5, 6].
  2. Attentional Focus: Animals are often sought for their ability provide a positive external focus of attention. For example, one study found that children with autism looked longer at faces of dogs than faces of humans [7]. The presence of animals may therefore be a way to keep a child attentive to the intervention.
  3. Nonjudgmental Companions: Animals are perceived as providing nonjudgmental companionship. This component of animal-assisted intervention is especially important to children with autism, who are sometimes at a higher risk for stress and bullying by their peers, particularly during the school age years [8, 9].

How common are animals in autism intervention?

The idea that animals can benefit children and adults with autism is prevalent, and stories of animals helping people overcome the challenges that come with autism are often reported in the media. One survey estimated that almost 25% of families of children with autism have participated in some form of animal-assisted intervention [10].

Animals are present in the lives of individuals with autism in a number of ways, from household pets to interventions with varying structures, goals, and animal species. The main types of animal-assisted intervention are animal-assisted activities, animal-assisted therapy, animal-assisted education, and the provision of assistance animals [11].

Does research support animal-assisted intervention for autism?

Conducting research is the best way to develop and assess effective and reliable interventions such as animal-assisted intervention. Research can evaluate the outcomes of a specific program and compare multiple methodologies.

Following the public enthusiasm for animal-assisted intervention for autism, an increasing number of research teams have begun investigating the effects of animals for people with autism. As this field of research is emerging, our research group at the OHAIRE lab conducted two reviews of the scientific literature and found a growing body of studies on this topic [12, 13].

Our systematic reviews have found that, despite positive results, many early studies investigating the effects of animal-assisted intervention for autism were characterized by a lack of scientific rigor, small sample sizes, poor study designs, or researcher bias [12, 13]. However, recent years have seen an increase in high-quality research on animal-assisted intervention for autism. As rigorous studies are being conducted and their findings shared, animal-assisted intervention for autism is better understood in its benefits and limitations.

Figure: The number of scientific studies on animal-assisted intervention for autism has increased over time.

NumberPublications

What do we do at the OHAIRE lab?

At the OHAIRE lab, we aim to conduct and collaborate on high-quality research to understand the effects of animal-assisted intervention for autism. Our commitment to conducting strong scientific research includes developing carefully designed studies, using state-of-the-art protocols and unbiased measurements, and rigorously reporting on our findings in peer-reviewed journals and at international conferences.

Methodology: Conducting high-quality research requires using high-quality tools. When it comes to evaluating the effects of an intervention, the primary source of outcomes used is questionnaires. At the OHAIRE lab, we think that while questionnaires are a useful tool to gain personal insight from the family and caretakers of children with autism, other objective measures can reveal a richer, potentially less biased picture of the effect of interventions. Therefore, our research incorporates physiological and behavioral data in addition to questionnaire data. In particular, we have developed a behavior coding tool: The Observation of Human-Animal Interaction for Research (OHAIRE) is designed to capture changes in behavior caused by the intervention. We also investigate the physiological mechanisms underlying animal interaction by incorporating assessment of the stress response system (e.g. electrodermal activity, salivary cortisol).

Findings: Our research group has worked on investigating the effects of a number of species and types of interventions for autism, including guinea pigs as classroom pets, therapeutic horseback riding, canine-assisted therapy, and autism service dogs. Example findings include:

  • Animal-assisted activities with guinea pigs had positive effects for children with autism, including increases in smiling and social behaviors [6, 14]. Children with ASD also exhibited a 43% decrease in skin conductance, a measure of physiological activation, when interacting with guinea pigs as compared to toys [15].
  • Psychiatrically hospitalized children with ASD displayed more positive emotional facial expressions when interacting with a therapy dog than with toys. Engaging with the therapy dog also resulted in more talking, use of gestures, and looking at both adults and peers [16].

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