The popularity of using animals as a form of therapy for individuals with autism has greatly increased over the past decade. Inclusion of animals in therapeutic activities is known as animal- assisted intervention (AAI) and has been the topic of many studies and articles. It is well documented that in general, animal interactions can improve psychosocial well-being, such as reduced stress, lowered heart rate and blood pressure, reduced loneliness and isolation, increased social interaction and connection, and increased socio-emotional functioning (e.g., Friedmann & Son, 2009; Wells, 2009). Additionally, research shows that children with ASD can display social aversion to humans and tend to prefer pictures of animals over humans or inanimate objects (Celani, 2002; Prothman et. al, 2009). It is not surprising that it would be hypothesized that animals could effectively be used as an intervention for individuals with ASD.
As prevalence rates of autism increase and funding becomes more available, new interventions and therapies continue to appear. However, few of these are research- based. Before trying a new therapy, it is very important to conduct thorough research to discover if the therapy is evidence- based and if you think it would be a good fit for your family. Based on a systematic literature review conducted by O’Haire (2012) of research on using AAI for ASD, many research studies reported positive results, such as increased social interaction and communication, as well as decreased problem behaviours, autistic severity, and stress. Additionally, many anecdotal reports state that AAI can assist individuals with ASD develop sensory and social skills, manage problem behaviours and improve quality of life. However, O’Haire (2012) also found many methodological weaknesses in most of the studies on AAI and ASD and suggests that using AAI for individuals with ASD continues to need more research. Due to the increasing number of interventions available for individuals with ASD, a four- phase model for developing and evaluating interventions has been created. Results from O’Haire’s (2012) review indicate that AAI is still in the first phase and needs to be proven as a “probably efficacious treatment” by using more robust and comprehensive research designs and to be compared against other treatments before it can be moved up to the second phase.
If you are considering applying for an Autism Assistance Dog, here are a few questions to consider.
- Is your child with autism fearful of dogs?
- Is there a possibility your child with autism could harm the dog in any way?
- Would your child be able to make the distinction that not all dogs are as helpful and friends as assistance dogs?
- Would a dog be a welcome member to your family?
- Would you be able to adequately care for the dog, in addition to all your other ‘life duties’? (Training, feeding, grooming, toileting, exercise)
- Dogs are trained to track the child constantly (both at home and in the community) and to alert parents if something is wrong
- Bonding between child and dog
- Dog could serve as a distraction so that problem behaviours decrease (situations that would normally upset a child are less likely to upset him/ her)
- Dog could prevent child from running away or bolting into traffic
- Playing with the dog could improve the child’s motor skills (throwing a ball, petting, grooming
- Dog could act as a social bridge between the child and other people
Overall, an Autism Assistance Dog could be a wonderful addition to your family. However, there are many important aspects to consider before deciding to use one. Generally, anecdotal descriptions by parents living with assistance dogs stated that the presence of the dog had considerably improved the whole family’s quality of life. Ultimately, it is crucial to decide on an intervention that suits your family and the needs of your child. For more information, please review the websites and read the novels listed below.
Websites about Assistance Dogs
The Golden Bridge: A Guide to Assistance Dogs for Children Challenged By Autism or Other Developmental Disabilities (New Discoveries in the Human-Animal Bond S.) [Paperback]  (Author) Patty Dobbs Gross
Songs of the Gorilla Nation: My Journey Through Autism
Animals in Translation: Using the Mysteries of Autism to Decode Animal Behavior (A Harvest Book)
A Friend Like Henry: The Remarkable True Story of an Autistic Boy and the Dog That Unlocked His World