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More Animals in the Classroom: Interview with Maggie O'Haire

Children with autism can have difficulty fitting into social settings and reading people. Empathy is often hard to cultivate. Research has indicated that in some cases, children with autism are able to connect with animals in a way that is difficult for them to do with people (see this resource for more information). Some teachers have always had or are incorporating animals into their classrooms to help reach these students (see here) and research is being conducting to see what kinds of animals can be useful in reaching children.

Maggie O’Haire is a Ph.D. candidate in Psychology at the University of Queensland in Australia. She is an American who received a Fulbright grant to study the effect of animals on children with autism. She is continuing her work with a National Institutes of Health funded grant.

O’Haire’s research project incorporated animal interaction into classroom settings. Traditionally, service animals are often canines. O’Haire chose to include guinea pig interaction in her research mostly for the practical aspect, saying “I needed to come up with something that was cost effective for schools to be able to promote in the classroom full time”. For teachers, guinea pigs are much lower maintenance than dogs. Guinea pigs can also live in the classroom. The study lasted 8 weeks with visits from O’Haire twice a week for twenty minutes each.

O’Haire designed animal assisted activities (AAA) for teachers to use in their classrooms. AAA is not the same thing as animal assisted therapy (AAT). There was no clinical psychology being practiced in the classrooms. The activities focused on basic skills such as caring for the animal, how to interact with the animal, as well as letting the child decide what he or she wanted to do and facilitate that experience. Some children enjoyed building things for the guinea pigs. They would make tunnels and mazes. Some students enjoyed taking pictures of the animals, weighing them, and tracking their health and wellbeing.

The project measured social function, skills, and withdrawal behaviors measured before and after AAA. Social network interviews were conducted to see if the children’s social spheres expanded. Also, physiological measurements of stress were taken.

O’Haire reports that the interaction with the guinea pigs is having a positive effect on the students. Students sometimes refer to the guinea pigs as their “best friend” in class, while other students with autism have expanded their social sphere. O’Haire says, “some students come out of their shell only when I bring the guinea pigs around”. The student with autism is speaking, smiling, and engaged. Students are more relaxed in class and more cooperative. The guinea pigs can be used as positive reinforcement, as a stress reliever, and as a comfortable companion.

When she is not researching or working on her thesis, Maggie O’Haire also participates in pet foster care. When the local shelter gets kittens that are too young to be left alone, the shelter has volunteers take care of them until they are old enough to be adopted. O’Haire refers to these cats as her “Thesis Therapy Cats”. They help her cope with the demands of writing and research. She also cares for pets in crisis. Currently, her thesis therapy cat is a four-year-old cat with a broken leg.

When asked if one kind of animal is better as a therapy animal than another, O’Haire replied that the choice of animal is very subjective. Guinea pigs, while small, can elicit strong reactions for the participating students. O’Haire’s cats are a source of comfort and relaxation, while others are drawn to birds or snakes. O’Haire’s research shows that even our smallest animals can have large impacts.

  1. Autism
  2. Classroom
  3. Guinea pigs

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