By | August 24, 2016

Animals have been part of human civilization for generations, but the role of animals in service of those with disabilities is often forgotten. More importantly, the role of animals in helping those with autism spectrum disorders (ASDs) learn the skills necessary for adulthood has not been extensively studied. More than 50,000 adolescents with ASDs reach age 18 annually, but a new study, reports the University of Missouri, shows the concept may hold more promise than researchers previously realized.


What Did the Study Find?

The overwhelming negative results for studying the impact of service animals on those with ASDs during adolescence are the results of self-reporting. Many adolescents failed to participate in previous studies, leaving researchers to assume conclusions were not worth pursuing. Yet, the study at the University of Missouri took a different approach.

Researchers found those with ASDs were better able to communicate their feelings when given the opportunity to photograph different animals in different poses. Researchers found the majority of participants felt stressed about learning new skills, taking on new responsibilities and being able to live as an adult.

In addition, many reported feelings of sadness and loneliness, which inherently begs the question: “What can be done to help those with ASDs learn how to address these problems?”


Why Is Animal Photography Helpful to Those With Autism?

Domesticated animals, including dogs, cats, birds and livestock, are non-judgmental in an unhuman context. They respond to the body language and assertiveness of those around them. In some cases, the animal may mimic the way a person acts.

For example, nervousness in a person may deter horses from seeking attention or allowing a person to pet or ride them. But, being detached from the situation will still encourage rejection by the horse, explains Tufts University. So, similar responses can be captured with a camera.

When participants were given the opportunity to interact with animals, an analysis of all photos demonstrated a new way for those with ASDs to “define their problems,” asserts the U.S. National Library of Medicine. Since knowing the circumstances of a problem is critical to finding a solution, social workers or caregivers who work with those with ASDs can model therapies to address the problem.


How Does This New Form of Therapy Impact Social Skills?

“Social skills” is a very broad category of interpersonal skills, but the essence of social skills boils down to the ability to communicate, understand others and act appropriately. If you compare these definitions to the basic principles of modeling behavior to elicit appropriate responses within Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA), you can fine tune the ABA sessions. But, the possibilities do not end there.


Implications of the Study on the Use of Animal Therapy for Those With Autism

The study findings show a direct need for better communication and involvement in social contexts in helping those with ASDs prepare for adulthood. But, the use of animals can also be applied in different therapeutic contexts.

For example, animals may service as companions, assistance animals or therapy animals. Each type of animal provides a benefit to the child, adolescent or adult, explains Autism Speaks. This may include learning new skills during on-the-job training, learning how to better understand and communicate needs to others and understanding how consequences play out in the real world.

For example, a companion animal’s droppings pile up with time, leading to foul odors, insect problems and potential health risks. This example is comparable to the need to care for oneself and one’s environment as an adult, i.e., cleaning one’s home or personal space.

Meanwhile, learning how to properly care for an animal can help those with ASDs understand how learning new skills can result in positive outcomes, such as spending more time playing with Fido after he has eaten and been bathed. Ultimately, every interaction could help reinforce self-confidence and self-esteem in those with ASDs, a key part of preparing for adulthood.


What Do the Findings Mean to You?

Obviously, the youngest children with ASDs may not be capable of using cameras to photograph animals or make similar connections as defined in the study. However, the finds do imply a sense of duty on your part, as a social worker, caregiver or another authority figure, to help those with ASDs explore the use of animals in therapeutic settings.

You may need to work with parents and family members to define what type of animals would be appropriate in the home. For example, parents with dander allergies may be better suited for a non-shedding companion, such as a toad or lizard. Even birds can be suitable companions.

For example, parrots have been successful service animals to children with disabilities, including autism, around the globe, explains the Lafeber Company, a leading, veterinarian-owned parrot authority. The options are practically endless. But, if those you care for do take a non-dog, non-cat road, you need to make sure their parents or caregivers understand their roles as teaching children or teens with ASDs to care for exotic companions or service animals.

Animals open worlds of insight into helping those with ASDs overcome challenges. From learning how to watch for non-verbal communication when working with peers to understanding how not responding appropriate leads to problems, animals may hold the key to transforming the perception of caring for those autism.


Wrapping It All Up

If you can learn to leverage this information now, you may be able to reduce nervousness, anxiety, depression, fear and anguish in those with ASDs as they enter adulthood. Essentially, every time you help those with ASDs learn more about their roles and responsibilities in life, you can help them be prepared and willing to embrace the changes that come with becoming adults.

This includes entering the workforce, learning new skills and trades and finding their place in the world. In other words, your calling to serve those with ASDs can be expanded, improving the lives of those with disabilities and reaching more individuals faster through proactive measures.

Jason Vanover

Working in health care since 2005, Jason's body of experience encompasses dozens of care settings, including Senior care, psychiatric facilities, nonprofit health service centers, group homes for those with developmental disabilities and beyond. Jason understands the need to tailor his skills to each setting to encourage the best treatment outcomes and promote an inclusive, healing environment.


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