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How Animal-Assisted Therapy Helps Those With Autism

One area that is receiving a lot of attention is the use of animal-assisted therapy (frequently dogs) for individuals with autism. While research is limited, studies reveal that children with an autism spectrum disorder (ASD) laugh, talk, and display other positive social behaviors when they have a companion animal with them. A recent study explored the viewpoints of youth with ASD. This innovative study finds that animal-assisted therapy helps individuals with autism combat feelings of loneliness. Additional research finds that animals can reduce the anxiety, depression, and fear that many people with ASD feel. Furthermore, studies indicate that behavioral problems decrease while positive social interactions and a desire to participate are gained through animal-assisted therapy.

Study aims to understand the impact ASD has on an individual’s life

Nancy Cheak-Zamora is a researcher at the Thompson Center for Autism and Neurodevelopmental Disorders. Cheak-Zamora states that the challenges faced by youth with ASD as they transition to adulthood are apparent; however, the majority of the research available has focused on the perspectives of their caretakers or parents. The lack of research outlining the perspectives of individuals with autism is due to their limited participation in research. Furthermore, the fears and communication difficulties many individuals with autism spectrum disorders face also contributed to the inability to gather information for study. To complete their study, Cheak-Zamora, Anna Maurer-Batjer, a graduate student in the School of Social Work, and Michelle Teti, who is an assistant professor in the School of Health Professions, had to find a way to learn more about the lives of individuals with autism. The team discovered that adolescents with autism could find their voice through the use of photographs.

Participants use images to share life experiences with researchers

There were 11 study participants whose ages ranged from 16 to 25. Each study participant received a camera (Photovoice) and was asked to take pictures of their experiences. Researchers asked that these photos portray the challenges they face as well as images of the things that brought them joy. Using these photos, researchers analyzed and then categorized the participants’ responses, identifying themes. Feelings of loneliness and sadness were prevalent: however, researchers noticed that many of the participants took photos of animals and stated that animals helped them combat feelings of loneliness. Therefore, the positive effect that animals had on these individuals became evident.

Animal-assisted therapy helps individuals with autism live fuller lives

Therapy dogs for autism are different than guide dogs. ASD-therapy dogs are specifically trained to assist individuals who have an autism spectrum disorder. These dogs can improve their guardian’s communication skills, oversee his or her safety and can even serve as an ‘ice breaker’ in a social situation. Furthermore, these animals have the ability to comfort their guardians during stressful moments, including when an individual with autism lashes out because others cannot understand what he or she is trying to convey.

The unique interactions between animals and people with autism

One focus of Purdue Veterinary Medicine’s Organization for Human-Animal Interaction Research (OHAIRE) lab is the study of unique interactions between animals and individuals with ASD.

There are several reasons that animals may be valuable as an intervention tool for some people with autism spectrum disorders:

  • Animals have a unique ability to help focus an individual’s attention. One study states that children with autism look at the faces of dogs longer than they do at the faces of humans. Therefore, having animals present may keep a child with ASD attentive throughout the intervention.
  • People tend to engage socially when animals are present, which is why the animal may act as an ‘ice breaker’ for individuals with autism who face social challenges in their daily lives. In addition, several studies indicate that children with ASD smile and interact socially more frequently when animals are present.
  • Children with autism are at higher risk for becoming the victims of a bully. Furthermore, these children are more likely to experience stress, in general. Both of these issues are of the greatest concern during his or her years in school. However, the nonjudgmental companionship offered through animal-assisted intervention can provide these children with stress relief and eliminate the feeling of loneliness that many of these children experience.

Therapy dog vs. service dog

A therapy dog

Many therapy dogs receive special training to learn how to provide comfort and affection in therapeutic situations. Generally, therapy dogs work in nursing homes, hospitals, and other healthcare facilities. These dogs can calm a patient who is having a stressful medical procedure or assist patients as they perform their physical and/or occupational therapy. Due to their ability to encourage social interaction and promote a calming effect, the use of therapy dogs has branched out into the autism community.

While many dogs do undergo special training to become a therapy dog, some dogs with an exceptionally calm, tolerant and affectionate nature may not need actual training. However, when choosing a therapy dog, finding an animal that matches the needs of the child and the child’s family is imperative. Therefore, to find an ideal match, it is best to contact an accredited agency. Accredited agencies can be found on the Assistance Dogs International website.

A service dog

Service dogs require professional training to perform their duties. Professionally training a service dog is essential because an improperly trained dog can present a hazard to those around him or her.

A service dog is trained to meet the specific needs of the individual it will assist. For example, a service dog may assist an individual who has a hearing or visual impairment, a mobility problem, diabetes (to detect low or high blood sugar), anxiety, epilepsy (to detect a seizure) or a developmental disorder (including autism).

A service dog trained for an individual with autism may accompany a child to his or her dentist, doctor visits, while traveling, shopping and/or attending school activities. Autism service dogs can be trained to recognize and help de-escalate emotional meltdowns or to gently interrupt an individual displaying self-harming behaviors. For example, a service dog may respond to signs that indicate anxiety by gently laying across the individual’s lap.

Animal-assisted therapy for autism

The types of animals that are used to assist individuals with autism vary. Dogs, cats, rabbits and even guinea pigs are being used to help individuals with ASD live fuller lives. Although it may seem like a tall order, pets can provide unconditional love, calming cuddle sessions and happiness.

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