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Myth #4: There are no Scientific Studies to Support Autism Assistance Dog Placements

by Patty Dobbs Gross

The years tell us much of what the days never know. ~ Ralph Waldo Emerson
'Aaron and North Star's Bingo meeting for the very first time.''Aaron and North Star's Bingo meeting for the very first time.'

Anecdotally speaking, we have known that a dog can be a valuable therapeutic tool since Jingles did his thing with a progressive American psychologist named Boris Levinson a century ago, but Florence Nightingale, the Quakers, and even Freud also believed that dogs were able to help people both physically as well as psychologically.

Still, the science associated with this emerging field has been slow to develop; this fact is not to be confused with the potential validity of the studies themselves, but is a direct result of the social and economic climate of the times. For instance, during the 1950’s and 60’s figuring out just how Mom was to blame for the child’s autistic symptoms was commonplace in the scientific world. Bettelheim’s refrigerator mother made a certain type of sense back then, considering the information available about the brain during these decades. A toddler not meeting his or her mother’s eyes could easily be interpreted as a psychological manifestation of a dysfunctional maternal/child relationship traveling on a sad path to autism’s dismal doorstep; here we see a model for autism as brain damage by virtue of a child not getting their emotional needs met.

The 1970s and 80s brought us more than disco and puffy hair, it brought us awareness that autism could be biologically based due to science’s advances in understanding and measuring brain function. This led to expensive back and forth studies to try to find the physical cause of autism. I have been in the autism world since the eighties, courtesy of my son Danny being born on the autism spectrum over two decades ago (time flies when you’re early intervening!), and during this time I have seen theories of autism causation come and go, sometimes coming back again: from vaccinations to gluten to heavy metal poisoning and then back to vaccinations once again: the increased scientific light shed on things that can be empirically measured did not necessarily get us anywhere closer to the truth about autism in these decades, as many of these studies conflicted with each other and were politically motivated, which may easily skew results in a variety of ways that will blow us off track from the truth. Here we see autism as brain damage by virtue of some mysterious physical insult, and it seemed many people had a stake in the results yet to be found. This is not a good climate to study any phenomena, as you need a window pane wiped clean of fingerprints to reveal the truth of what you are studying, making decisions and deciding policies upon.

The 1990s and up to present day opened up new ways of thinking about autism, and our expanded genetic understanding began to allow us to view the condition of autism as being heavily influenced by the child’s inherited genetic endowment. Applied Behavioral Analysis began to help many children on the spectrum in measurable ways: here we see autism as a genetic difference in sensory processing due to inherited “hardwired” traits that need to be worked with rather than ignored or repressed. (When my son Danny’s speech finally came in, garbled and echolalic, I actually had a developmentalist tell me to ignore all but functional speech, which at the time would have left me ignoring well over half of whatever Danny said.)

We are now on the cusp of understand the importance of proper environments and appropriate education for a child with autism to not just survive, but thrive. Here we see autism as a condition that can be worked with and understood, not cured or defeated. This new philosophy has led to a discovery of the many avenues of appropriate early intervention and educational programming available to us that we can use to custom design a child with autism’s early intervention program, including using animal assisted therapy and autism assistance dogs when appropriate.

Beyond anecdotes, one of the first evidence based, scientific studies on animal assisted therapy and children with autism was conducted by Dr. Martin at the University of Washington. He found that children with autism who had their therapeutic hour accompanied by a trained dog were more focused, stayed on task and were more verbal than the control group. (They also had more stimming such as flapping of hands, but this was seen as a reflection of the children’s excitement rather than any type of set back toward normalcy). Here you can find this abstract in the US National Library of Medicine at the National Institutes of Health.

Recently a study in Canada studied the levels of cortisol, known as “the stress hormone,” in children with autism with and without an assistance dog living in the home; they found a statistically significant difference in the cortisol levels when they lived with an assistance dog verse when they did not. Even more exciting was to hear that parents reported an increase in good behavior with their child on the autism spectrum when he or she was living with an autism assistance dog. Here is a good article written about this study:

More studies are now needed to further our understand how and why being with a canine companion can cause a significant decline in cortisol levels in children with autism, and to be sure this drop in cortisol levels corresponds with the expected feeling of relaxation and calmness for the children. Other brain chemicals need to also be measured in the children with autism in the presence of assistance dogs at this point as well, perhaps testing to see if oxytocin, our bodies’ “relationship” chemical, may increase in the children with autism in the presence of their dogs, thereby perhaps increasing their feelings of connectedness and decreasing the sense of isolation and loneliness. The fact that the dog is the perfect tool to bring the child’s community closer to provide the raw materials for the social interactions that are needed to develop social skills and pragmatic language is interesting to note, and for us at North Star, crucial to capitalize upon.

There continues to be an increasing amount of attention paid to autism, which is still being found in little ones with increasing numbers that at first hinted, and then warned, of an epidemic. This fueled some understandable panic, and people began to see autism as a scary disease, goosing our fears that a developmental disability can be “caught” despite no evidence the contrary. This is a climate that helped to form such organizations such as Cure Autism Now as if autism were a sudden scourge on the land; even Psychology Today referred to autism as a disease just a few short years ago! If great care isn’t taken, early intervention can be a frantic, humorless, rapidly closing window of opportunity you have to somehow shove your child through.

Now, in our second decade of the second millennium on this planet, I believe we have come to understand that autism is strongly influenced by the genes, with autism’s ultimate expression a function of dance of nature and nurture. Here we can view autism within a social context, as a genetic trait like any other, such as being born with red hair, a quality that we as a society can form value judgments about which will then help or help or hurt the red haired child within his or her environment (i.e., the child might end up teased or left out due to his or her “carrot top” or sunburnt without proper protection due to the delicate fair skin that typically accompanies this color of hair; or, conversely, the red hair might be seen as a lucky trait with people having a bias to support this belief along with the red haired child’s lucky breaks during the course of his or her childhood. It may end up valuable to grow up a red head in our society or it could be a psychological nightmare, depending on society’s values).

My feeling is that we are now on the cusp of an essential shift in how we as a society view children with autism and early intervention. There is proven and growing body of scientifically valid evidence that proves that autism assistance dogs help children on the spectrum to reach their social, emotional and/or educational goals; what will take a bit longer will be to prove is just why this is so or how we can magnify this effect.

Until then, intelligent theories and exacting scientific inquiry should continue to dovetail in order to move the emerging field of animal assisted therapy and autism assistance dogs forward.

  1. Animal-assisted therapies
  2. Autism
  3. Evidence
  4. Service animals

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