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Animal-assisted Social Skills Training for Children with Autism Spectrum Disorders

By Joanna L. Becker, Erica C. Rogers, Bethany Burrows

Category Journal Articles
Abstract

Recent research indicates that youth with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) show increases in prosocial behaviors in the presence of animals, yet few studies have examined the effects of incorporating animals into treatments. The current study evaluated the effectiveness of an animal-assisted social skills training group for youth with ASD. It was hypothesized that incorporating dogs into social skills training (SST) would produce a greater effect on improving social skills, theory of mind, and feelings of inclusion than would be obtained from SST without an animal present. We compared social skills groups with therapy dogs to traditional social skills groups without an animal present. Students with ASD attending school at a therapeutic treatment facility (n = 31; ages 8–14) were assigned to either experimental or control groups, which were both provided with 12 weeks of weekly treatment. Following participation in SST, participants in the groups with dogs were rated as significantly less symptomatic than participants in the traditional social skills group on the Social Responsiveness Scale (SRS-2), a teacher-rated measure of autism-related symptoms. Based on self-report ratings using the Children’s Depression Inventory (CDI-2), participants in the groups with dogs experienced significantly greater reductions in symptoms measured by the Interpersonal Problems and Functional Problems subscales, and not on the other subscales of the CDI-2. Both groups showed improvement in theory of mind and decreased feelings of isolation and overall depressive symptoms; however, the effect of group on change over time was not significant. On the Social Language Development Test (SLDT), no significant differences were observed. The current findings indicate animal-assisted social skills training may be more beneficial for improving social skills and reducing related affective symptoms than traditional training models.

Publication Title Anthrozoös
Volume 30
Issue 2
Pages 307-326
ISBN/ISSN 0892-7936
DOI 10.1080/08927936.2017.1311055
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Tags
  1. Animal-assisted activities
  2. Autism
  3. Dogs
  4. Social Skills
  5. therapy