Home  |   Subscribe  |   Resources  |   Reprints  |   Writers' Guidelines

E-News Exclusive

Children With Autism Spectrum Disorders Benefit From Animal-Assisted Therapy
By Cyndie Brashear-Kieffer, LSW

Although animal-assisted therapy (AAT) may sound like a creative ruse for people bringing their dogs (or other pets) with them to work, there is sound research that it is a valid and effective modality. Boris Levinson, PhD, was the first professionally trained clinician to document the benefits of a dog’s presence while he worked with children in the late 1960s. AAT has been steadily gaining legitimacy as a useful addition to therapies that help improve physical and emotional health. It can benefit many clients and provides a social lubricant that may coax the most reluctant people to open up about the issues they are facing. It is important to note that animal-assisted therapy occurs only when a professional/licensed individual delivers goal-directed interventions using their animal. It is not to be confused with animal visitation programs that are offered at different facilities.

Many children with autism spectrum disorders (ASD) can have difficulty socializing with peers and communicating with family and often demonstrate repetitive behaviors such as rocking or hand twirling. These, along with other atypical behaviors, can make it difficult for the child with ASD to form friendships. The addition of an animal in the therapeutic milieu can offer a nonjudgmental and nonthreatening supplement to the team working with children with ASD. On numerous occasions, children with these disabilities encounter situations that can make them feel isolated, depressed, and anxious. Through interacting with therapy dogs, children with ASD can build confidence and the ability to demonstrate empathy by caring for the needs of a dog.

Children and adults with ASD can relate well with animals, as they appear to engage in sensory-based thinking. Animals store memories as pictures and sounds thus explaining why some dogs dislike men wearing hats. A similar thought process can also help explain why individuals with ASD are fearful in certain situations.

As an advocate for persons with developmental disabilities, who works alongside her dog, I have often observed the advantages of AAT. During one such occasion, AAT was used in a group setting at a day program with the goal of achieving a marked increase in positive interactions among the selected group of participants. When the group sessions came to a close after six weeks, gains were made many areas including a decrease in disruptive behavior, helping each another, increased cooperation, fewer incidents of withdrawal, and individuals waiting for their turns. AAT is versatile and easy to use in conjunction with other forms of therapy. Within this particular group, AAT was used to build the participants’ self-esteem through teaching new tricks to Abby, the therapy dog. The group had to work as a team to determine the best way to teach Abby, and they did this in a peaceful manner, as they knew Abby disliked loud noises. Particular social situations were also discussed using stories of Abby’s relationships with other dogs while asking the group to consider appropriate ways to handle the situation, which ultimately led them to realize better ways to handle encounters in their personal lives.

AAT is not an option for every child or adult with ASD due to the possibility of sensory oversensitivity causing an individual to be unable to tolerate the smell or touch of a dog. The sound of a dog barking can be a miserable sensory experience for a person with ASD and even if a dog is trained not to bark, the mere thought that it could occur may be enough to be unsettling. When introducing an individual with ASD to a dog, it is best to do so in an environment free from other sensory distractions such as fluorescent lighting and loud music/noises. Being well rested allows the most favorable learning atmosphere possible.

There are ethical issues that must be considered before starting a program such as this. It is important that therapists are sure their animals are reliable and predictable in various circumstances. Although not every agency requires completion of a class or other form of training, it is considered best practice to be registered with an agency or to have passed the AKC Canine Good Citizen test. When working with your dog or cat, it is important that you act as its advocate so it is not put in a dangerous situation. Dogs and cats demonstrate their stress or dislike of a situation in various ways, such as excessive yawning and lip licking, which are both signs that a dog is feeling stressed. Know the body language of your animal so that you can determine whether your pet enjoys working by your side. Additionally, knowledge of zoonotic illnesses can lessen the concerns that many people have about interactions with companion animals.

There are many practitioners offering this service and if you are interested in learning more, there are several avenues available including local, as well as international groups that can provide names of teams in your geographic area. These groups can provide information on how to test and become certified with their organization and some will also provide links to articles on this subject. This is an exciting and rewarding option for your practice as AAT is steadily gaining acceptance through on-going research demonstrating the positive outcomes of using this modality in many different professions.

The Delta Society, a national nonprofit organization that promotes living better lives through the presence of service, companion, and therapy animals, clarifies the difference between AAT and animal-assisted activities. Further information about these definitions as well as general information on how to start a program at your agency can be found at www.deltasociety.org.

— Cyndie Brashear-Kieffer, LSW, is an advocate for individuals with developmental disabilities at Southern Illinois Case Coordination Services.