Animal-Assisted Intervention for Autism
One of the focuses of the OHAIRE lab is to study the unique interactions between people with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and animals.
What is autism spectrum disorder?
Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is referred to as a spectrum, since it reflects a wide variety of symptom severity and intellectual abilities. It is the second most common neurodevelopmental disorder diagnosed in children in the US, affecting approximately 1 in 68 children by recent estimates . The core symptoms of autism are impaired social skills and restricted, repetitive behaviors and interests .
Why include animals in autism intervention?
There are several suggested reasons that animals may be valuable in autism intervention for some individuals.
- Evidence points to a potential 'social lubricant' effect of animals. People may be more likely to engage socially when in the presence of animals [3, 4]. This effect may address the social challenges that people with autism face in their daily lives. Some studies have found that children with autism interact more socially and smile more around animals [5, 6].
- Animals are often sought for their ability to focus 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.
- Animals are perceived as providing nonjudgmental companionship. This component of animal-assisted intervention is especially important to children with autism, who are often at a higher risk for stress and bullying by their peers, particularly during the school age years [8, 9].
How common are animals in autism intervention?
The idea that animals can benefit children and adults with autism is prevalent and stories of animals helping people overcome the challenges that come with autism are often reported in the media. To date, it is estimated that almost 25% of individuals with autism have participated in some form of animal-assisted intervention .
Animals are present in the lives of individuals with autism in a number of ways, from household pets to interventions with varying structures, goals, and animal species. The main types of animal-assisted intervention are animal-assisted activities, animal-assisted therapy, animal-assisted education, and the provision of assistance animals .
Does research support animal-assisted intervention for autism?
Conducting research is the best way to develop and assess effective and reliable interventions such as animal-assisted intervention. Research can evaluate the outcomes of a specific program and compare multiple methodologies.
Following the public enthusiasm for animal-assisted intervention for autism, an increasing number of research teams have begun investigating the effects of animals for people with autism. As this field of research is emerging, our research group at the OHAIRE lab conducted a review of the scientific literature and found a growing body of studies on this topic [12, 13].
Our systematic review found that, despite early positive results, many early studies investigating the effects of animal-assisted intervention for autism were characterized by a lack of scientific rigor, small sample sizes, poor study designs, or researcher bias. However, recent years have seen an increase in high-quality research on animal-assisted intervention for autism. As rigorous studies are being conducted and their findings shared, animal-assisted intervention for autism is better understood in its benefits and limitations.
Figure: The number of scientific studies on animal-assisted intervention for autism is increasing every year.
What do we do at the OHAIRE lab?
At the OHAIRE lab, we aim to conduct and collaborate on high-quality research to understand the effects of animal-assisted intervention for autism. Our commitment to conducting strong scientific research includes developing carefully designed studies, using state-of-the-art protocols and unbiased measurements, and rigorously reporting on our findings in peer-reviewed journals and at international conferences.
Methodology. Conducting high-quality research requires using high-quality tools. When it comes to evaluating the effects of an intervention, the primary source of outcomes used is questionnaires. At the OHAIRE lab, we think that while questionnaires are a useful tool to gain personal insight from the family and caretakers of children with autism, other objective measures can reveal a richer, potentially less biased picture of the effect of interventions. This is why our research incorporates physiological and behavioral data in addition to questionnaire data. In particular, we have developed a behavior coding tool: the Observation of Human-Animal Interactions for Research is designed to capture eventual changes in behavior caused by the intervention.
Findings. Our research group has worked on investigating the effects of a number of species and types of interventions for autism, including guinea pigs as classroom pets, therapeutic horseback riding, and canine-assisted therapy. We found that a classroom program of animal-assisted activities with guinea pigs had positive effects for children with autism, including increases in smiling and social behaviors [6, 14].
Current. We are collaborating with the University of Colorado Denver & Children's Hospital of Colorado on a study evaluating the effects of animal-assisted therapy with dogs for children with autism ages 4-17. We are also collaborating with the University of California at Irvine Child Development School on a study evaluating cognitive behavioral therapy with dogs for children with autism ages 7-9.
My child has autism, should I get a service dog?
In our latest literature review, we found little evidence for the efficacy of service dogs for autism compared to other forms of animal-assisted intervention. If you think that an intervention with animals would benefit your child, we recommend trying a short-term type of animal-assisted intervention before investing time and financial resources in a service dog. Additionally, keep in mind that a service dog is not a family pet and is usually expected to perform specific tasks. It is likely that some children will benefit from service dogs, while others may not. If nevertheless you decide to get a service dog, we recommend that you are sure to be prepared for the commitment of a new animal in the home, and speak to organizations that are experienced in providing service dogs to children with autism.
Is dolphin-assisted therapy effective?
The efficacy of dolphin-assisted therapy for autism is not currently supported by scientific evidence. It is argued that the few studies reporting positive effects of dolphin-assisted therapy did not take into account a number of biases. In particular, the results of dolphin therapy may be attributed to simply moving to a new, outdoor, sunny environment . In addition, the benefits of dolphin-assisted therapy are often linked to ultra-high frequency vocalizations. In fact, there is no evidence of the benefits of these vocalizations, and they are rare during dolphin-assisted therapy sessions, typically exposing children to less than 10 seconds of vocalization . Welfare is also an ethical issue to take into account when considering dolphin-assisted therapy. The welfare of both the dolphin and the human must be top priority and is challenging to ensure with wild animals . Nevertheless, a study reported that interaction programs can have positive short-term effects and could be a form of enrichment for captive dolphins .
Can autism be cured with animal contact?
As a developmental disorder, there are no current 'cures' for autism, but rather a range of treatments that help improve the symptoms and the quality of life of individuals with autism. Animal-assisted intervention is not currently recommended as a primary treatment option for autism, but rather as a complementary or integrative treatment or enrichment activity. Empirically supported therapies such as Occupational Therapy, Speech Therapy and Applied Behavior Analysis remain the primary recommended treatment options for autism. Animal-assisted intervention is a suggested complementary and integrative therapy that provides enrichment, while potentially yielding positive outcomes such as increases in social interaction, communicative behaviors, positive emotions, and motor control for some individuals.
Written by Noémie A. Guérin and the OHAIRE Group
- Autism and Developmental Disabilities Monitoring Network, Prevalence of autism spectrum disorder among children aged 8 years - autism and developmental disabilities monitoring network, 11 sites, United States, 2010. MMWR Surveill Summ, 2014. 63(2): p. 1-21.
- American Psychiatric Association, Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders: DSM-V. 5th ed. 2013, Washington, DC: Author.
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- O'Haire, M.E., et al., Social behaviors increase in children with autism in the presence of animals compared to toys. PLoS ONE, 2013. 8(2): p. e57010.
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