Many parents searching for an effective intervention for their children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) have been drawn to therapies involving animals. Surveys indicate that one in four parents have tried animal-assisted therapies. What do we know about such treatments? How well do they work? Here’s what parents and all of us need to know.
Autism rates have been increasing dramatically. Since the CDC began tracking the disorder in 1992, rates have doubled. As of 2008, 1 in 88 children, and 1 in 54 boys have been diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder or ASD, an increase of 23% over just two years. While the causes of this increase – some are now calling it a national epidemic—are debated, effective therapies remain elusive. Drugs to decrease the most problematic symptoms, such as aggression and self-injury, often have serious side effects. Behavioral therapies, requiring at least 25 hours per week of intensive one-on-one work, appear to benefit primarily young children, particularly those with milder symptoms at the outset. Injections of the gut hormone secretin, once thought promising, have not yielded any reliable benefits.
Why then might animals help a child with autism? The thinking goes something like this: children with autism avoid interacting with other humans, but maybe not with animals. In one study, children with ASD responded more positively to pictures of animals than to pictures of humans or objects. Perhaps domestic animals such as dogs or horses, which bond with humans, could provide that missing social spark. Another possibility is that an animal may stimulate the senses and emotions, and lead a child with ASD to develop better sensori-motor skills. A third idea stems from studies showing that the company of a friendly dog, or even watching fish in an aquarium can reduce stress and increase calm in both children and adults. This suggests that an animal might de-stress a child with ASD, thereby reducing symptoms of agitation and aggression. Finally, children with autism tend to be socially isolated. A well behaved companion animal is a social lubricant: research shows that when people are with animals like friendly dogs, other people are more likely to approach them, smile, and talk. Perhaps being with an animal would encourage others to relate more positively to a child with ASD.
So, how do therapies including animals actually work with children who have ASD? Most interventions have at least 12 weekly sessions and work one-on-one with the child. Those with horses often involve assisted riding, but almost all include learning about the animal, practicing animal care, and playing games with animal themes. Within these activities, there may be targeted goals for increasing communication, social attention, and sensori-motor skills, while reducing problem behaviors such as aggression, repetitive behaviors or self-injury.
In 2012, Marguerite O’Haire reviewed 14 studies comparing such therapies with and without an animal, a dog or horse. The results were encouraging. In most of the studies, when the animal was present, children with ASD communicated more, both verbally and nonverbally, were less aggressive and seemed happier, smiling and laughing more often.
Still, O’Haire urges caution. There is no evidence that beneficial effects persist long-term. The severity of ASD symptoms may make a difference in how well a child responds to an animal-based therapy. For parents or others who want to explore animals as “co-therapists” for children with ASD, here are some guidelines:
- Be sure that assistance animals and their handlers are certified to work with children with autism. Pet Partners (www.petpartners.org) and the Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship (PATH International; www.pathintl.org) are good resources.
- Check out the training and credentials of the human interventionist. Animal-assisted therapy is only therapy when it is delivered by a licensed therapist. Teachers, riding instructors, animal trainers, or volunteers can provide animal-assisted experiences, but not therapies.
- Evaluate the activities that are planned for each session. Treatment goals should be clearly stated. The connection between activities and each goal should be spelled out.
- Make sure there is an objective way to measure your child’s progress. Agree at the outset how you and the therapists will decide whether or not your child is meeting a goal.
- Review with the therapists how they deal with instances of fear of an animal, or maltreatment of an animal.
- Develop a plan for tracking changes in your child both in and outside the animal-assisted sessions, especially over time.
- Consider the species and context carefully. Most evaluated therapies involve dogs or horses. Animal-assisted therapies involving dolphins pose risks to both child and animal safety, and have not demonstrated reliable benefits.
O’Haire, M. E. (2012). Animal-assisted intervention for autism spectrum disorder: A systematic literature review. Journal of Autism Developmental Disorder.