There are different types of therapies available to choose from and animal assisted therapy for autism has so much potential, depending on the individual with autism spectrum disorder. Therapy dogs, autism service dogs, equine assisted activities, and more are among choices parents and caregivers can select if searching for an animal assisted therapy.
According to the Mayo Clinic, animal assisted therapy is: “a growing field that uses dogs or other animals to help people recover from or better cope with health problems, such as heart disease, cancer and mental health disorders.” So, using animal assisted therapy could potentially also benefit some autistic children.
This article is going to discuss the benefits of animal assisted therapy for autistic children. In particular there will be discussions about therapy dogs and equine assisted activities and information from the professionals that work with the children with autism and animals.
What is animal assisted intervention?
According to the National Library of Medicine’s article, Research on animal-assisted intervention and autism spectrum disorder, animal assisted intervention is made up of three different categories that include:
- Targeted therapeutic services:
these are the animal assisted therapies and services that parents and individuals discuss with the therapists what goals, expectations, and growth they are expecting to receive from the therapy
- Enrichment visits:
these visits are meant to bring a sense of calm and happiness to the individual, involving an interaction with the animal
- Educational programs:
these programs may include interactions with animals while learning something new about the animal
These services help a broad spectrum of people that span neurotypicals to those with differing neurodivergent needs.
Are there many types of animal assisted therapies available?
There are a few different types of therapies available. In the article, Research on animal-assisted intervention and autism spectrum disorder, there are a number of therapy animals listed, including:
- Therapeutic horseback riding
this uses horseback riding to help strengthen the body, increase self awareness among other benefits
- Equine assisted therapy
horses are used as a part of the individual’s goals and plans
- Dolphin assisted therapy
dolphins are used as a part of the individual’s goals and plans
- Therapy dogs
the therapy sessions include a dog in the individual’s goals and plans
- Service dogs
these dogs are with the individual and can help with behaviors, like stimming, and medical interventions, like seizures
- Guinea pigs as support animals
this uses animals like guinea pigs as a part of the individual’s goals and plans
According to the study, equine assisted therapy rated the highest at 55% and was followed by dogs, guinea pigs, and dolphins.
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How and why do equine assisted activities work?
Lena Ebson, who is the program manager at the Equine Center for Learning, works with students that have differing needs, some include those diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder, and their parents or guardians to come up with goals and form a plan for the individual program. Lena said that there are many benefits to the human/animal interaction that happens during sessions.
She stated that some of the benefits for those with autism could be that horses use nonverbal communication between themselves meaning that there are not a lot of verbal cues that horses need to interact. Students that are nonverbal are able to relax, hang around, ride, and be by the horses without needing to talk.
That allows the students to get comfortable and creates a space for strengthening other areas the student may be working on. Those areas could be gross and fine motor skills, strengthening the trunk or core because there are a lot of core muscles used when riding a horse, and social skills.
In these programs, Lena stated that within the fun environment and interactions with the horses, the students also enjoy games and use patterns that help increase self awareness, expand social skills, and meet the goals they had for their program.
How do therapy dogs benefit children with autism?
Support and therapy dogs have many benefits for autistic children. It is important to that the health and wellbeing for the dog is taken into consideration when matching them up to a person, just like it is with any other type of pet ownership. If there is a possibility that the dog could become injured or abused, the therapy dog would not be a good option and the service should not be provided.
When searching for the benefits of therapy dogs and how they benefit children with autism spectrum disorder, Dr. Nikki Brown who is the Executive Director of Canines for Change stated that the therapy dog could be used to:
- track the child with autism if they elope or get lost
- use behavior interruption to help stop stimming or other repetitive behaviors
- use a cuddle command where the dog uses deep pressure that helps calm the person
- provide tethering to the autistic child and may prevent those that tend to wander and/or run away from their parents from doing so
Dr. Brown also suggests that if parents or caregivers are interested in a therapy dog for their child the best thing to do is to:
- call early to set things up and see if there is a dog available
- plan ahead and make sure everything is ready and set up
- make sure to talk to a person and service that understands autism spectrum disorders and what the individuals need
Could animal assisted therapy be right for my child?
There are a number of different service animals, therapy animals, and services available. Choosing the one that works for your autistic child depends on their interests, personality, and behavior. Also, it is a good idea to look at the goals and expectations there are for the animals and services provided and make sure they are a good fit.
There are a number of evidence-based practices available and some that are being utilized in the home or center, like occupational therapy (OT) sessions or Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA), that can benefit with the use of complementary therapies. As stated above, the core is strengthened through horseback riding, and if that is a goal in an individual’s OT sessions, therapeutic horseback riding can help.
The therapies listed in this article are not the only ones available and it would be advisable to check out what is available in your area. There are also areas where these therapies could be covered by insurance or have some kind of financial assistance available.
Having a companion animal, therapy animal, or participating in animal assisted therapies could benefit autistic children in many ways. With significant improvements in social interactions, social communication skills, repetitive behaviors, self awareness, fine and gross motor skills, the list could go on and would depend on the individual and goals they have.
Mayo Clinic Staff. (2020). Pet Therapy: Animals as healers. https://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/consumer-health/in-depth/pet-therapy/art-20046342
O’Haire, M. (2017). Research on animal-assisted intervention and autism spectrum disorder, 2012-2015. ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6510492/