What is Animal-Assisted Therapy for Autism?

Animal Assisted Therapy

Who doesn’t love animals? The soft fur and the huge, kind eyes. How can one resist?

Animals play a major role in many of our lives for comfort, for service, and for their unceasing love and friendship. They are an integral part of many therapies for certain populations with disabilities, injuries, or mental health issues; examples of this are equine therapy, general animal therapy with small pets, the use of service animals, visitation animals, etc. Animal-assisted therapy offers incredible benefits and is used to help those suffering from PTSD, anxiety, depression, trauma, grief, attachment disorders, loneliness, medical ailments, and much more. 

Animal-assisted therapy is also used with children with autism. The positive effects of animal-assisted therapy on children with autism is undeniably conclusive. In a way, it seems like a fairly common sense concept to agree with; but using animals in treatment isn’t a simple interaction. Behind the scenes–in the brain and in the body–there are so many things going on when a child responds to animal therapy. 

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What specifically does happen that makes animal-assisted therapy for children with autism so beneficial? What are the benefits, and what are some animal-assisted therapy techniques that are commonly used with children?

Our Brains on Animals 

Science doesn’t lie! 

Research has been conducted for decades on the physiological and psychophysiological effects that animals have on our brain, which in turn affect how we feel, act, and express ourselves. 

Researchers who conducted a meta-analysis looked at 69 original studies on human-animal interactions (HAI). Their proposal was that there is an activation of the oxytocin (OT) system within the body during HAI that consequently has multiple mental health benefits. Recall that oxytocin is considered the “love hormone” and helps us bond to others. 

They reported the following:

“Both, HAI and OT, were found to promote social interaction, to reduce stress and anxiety, and to enhance human health. OT is released via eye contact, but in particular, via pleasant tactile interactions which seem to play a major role for the OT-mediated decrease of stress levels. Oxytocin effects may be triggered in response to single meetings with animals, but stable relationships with animals such as pet ownership will be linked to more potent and long lasting effects due to repeated exposure to OT,” (Beetz et al., 2012). 

The combination of hormones and brain functioning are a powerful thing. Now let’s take a look at how animal-assisted therapy can help children with autism. 

How Animals Can Help Children with Autism 

As you can see from the research discussed, simply being around animals can cause a reaction within your body that positively affects many aspects of your emotions and overall well-being. Think about a particular population that may need extra specialized therapies in order to learn, cope, or thrive. Children with autism typically need these types of therapies; animal-assisted therapy and autism intervention go hand-in-hand. 

In an article, experts at Purdue University discussed three areas AAT can help those with autism with. 

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.

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.

Attentional focus: Animals are often sought for their ability to 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. The presence of animals may therefore be a way to keep a child attentive to the intervention.

Non-judgemental 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. 

Professionals who work with therapy dogs explain that some of the benefits include helping children calm during meltdowns, offering sensory support, providing reassurance during anxiety, and helps increase social engagement. 

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There are specific techniques and interventions used with children with autism when incorporating animal-assisted therapy into their schedule. 

Animal-Assisted Therapy Techniques

Those who are certified in delivering AAT interventions along with ABA therapists can work with children with autism in order to reach a goal. The goal might be to reduce anxiety or to practice making more eye contact; or it might be to practice showing patience or confidence–either way, those trained in AAT can assist the child in achieving those. 

Using a specially-trained therapy dog is one way to incorporate animal-assisted therapy into a daily or weekly routine. Parents of children with autism can go through various organizations to locate the right fit for them. Some ABA therapists, occupational therapists, and schools may already have AAT connections and use therapy dogs with their clients/students. 

This is an example of sensory support through AAT: (TherapyDogs.com)

  • “Children with autism need sensory stimulation through regular games and activities. Therapy dogs can be trained to assist autistic children throughout the process by means of various games and activities like, tug of war, hide and seek, and massage.”

How therapy dogs can help promote cognitive and emotional growth:

  • “Therapy dogs love to be hugged, touched, and cuddled by children which further instills the feeling of care in autistic kids.”

How a therapy dog can encourage social engagement: 

  • “A therapy dog can help an autistic child to break the ice and motivate them to mingle with others.  When needed, therapy dogs can divert the attention of autistic kids away from distractions and help focus on a task.”

As you can probably see, using animal-assisted therapy for children with autism is a no-brainer. There are too many benefits to be had and so much social and emotional growth that can happen throughout therapy sessions. Once a parent and child finds the perfect animal match, they can begin working on critical skills with their therapist.

Are you a parent of a child with autism and are interested in beginning animal-assisted therapy?

You can search for an accredited agency that uses therapy and service animals through Assistance Dogs International

Assistance Dogs International, Inc. (ADI) is a worldwide coalition of not-for-profit programs that train and place Assistance Dogs. Founded in 1986 from a group of seven small programs, ADI has become the leading authority in the Assistance Dog industry.

ABA Programs Guide

January 2021