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Autism

Usually first diagnosed in early childhood, autism is a disorder than manifests in impairment of social interactions, difficultly communicating, and repetitive behavior[1]. A child with autism may not make eye contact when speaking with others. The child may be unable to interpret other people’s behavior and react appropriately [2]. Because the symptoms of autism often vary from person to person, autism is sometimes considered a spectrum disorder. Autism spectrum disorders (ASD) include autism, Asperger syndrome (a milder from of autism), and Pervasive Developmental Disorder Not Otherwise Specified (PDD-NOS or atypical autism) [3]. Symptoms of ASD begin in early childhood and last throughout the person’s lifetime. Autism symptoms can be managed by different kinds of therapy, educational programs, and medication [4].

Because autism is one of the most rapidly growing special needs diagnoses, there is a large population of parents, caregivers, and educators hopeful for new treatments [5]. Animal assisted therapy (AAT) appears able to provide additional and effective avenues to help those with autism integrate into their social environments. Anecdotal evidence and a growing body of empirical research suggest children with ASD are more comfortable, focused, and attentive in the presence of a therapy dog, even in social situations with other strangers. [6].

Evidence supports that animals can be helpful to those with autism as a transitional object, similar to a child’s safety blanket [7]. Since children with ASD may have difficulty communicating their feelings, they rely on sensory-based thinking [8]. Since animals also approach the world this way they act as a jumping off point for those with ASD to approach social interaction with other people. The animal helps mediate the child’s experience with the world.

State of Current Research

Jocelyn Turner provides a thorough overview of the literature and history surrounding ASD and the limitations of research into the effectiveness of AAT interventions. Turner calls attention to the lack of rigor in the investigations of AAT and autism treatment. Turner also points to specific instances where AAT interventions would be useful for children with ASD. Evidence in the literature supports utilizing AAT when there is a need for:

a. therapeutic rapport and a safe environment

b. comfort and non-judgmental emotional support

c. anxiety and stress reduction

d. engagement

e. attachment or bonding

f. social development

g. communication skill development

h. sensory integration/therapeutic touch [9]

Proposed in Turner’s thesis is a way to integrate AAT into school therapy programs for high functioning autistic and Asperger’s syndrome students. Her program is divided into three parts: individual counseling sessions with a school counselor twice a week (therapy animal present), daily classroom charting/homework (no therapy animal present), and an end-of-the-day afterschool social skills development group five times a week (therapy animal present) [10]. Noting from the literature that therapy animals help students open up and become more relaxed in therapy, Turner recommends incorporating a therapy dog into this part of the program. The third component could involve service activities such as taking the therapy group and the dog to visit assisted living facilities, hospitals, and/or visiting other classrooms and reading to younger students [11]. The same therapy animal would be present from the individual sessions to help reassure the participants and help facilitate social interaction.

In the Handbook on Animal-Assisted Therapy: Theoretical Foundations and Guidelines, the chapter “The Use of therapy animals with individuals with autism spectrum disorders”, highlights anecdotes where AAT was successful in calming and helping children with ASD. Temple Grandin, Aubrey H. Fine, and Christine M. Bowers also highlight how equine therapy (therapy utilizing horses) helped children to open up, become calmer, and gave them opportunities to learn how to interact with others. As with other animals, therapy horses should be chosen for their calm and steady temperament [8]. It is also noted that horses, like other social animals, can become bored with the same routine, such as the same slow circles in a riding ring. Care has to be taken to provide for the needs of the therapy horse as well as the needs of the child.

Grandin et al’s chapter describes how service animals (animals not explicitly trained or certified as therapy animals) have helped take care of children with ASD [8]. Service animals may provide for the child’s safety by having the child connected by a harness to the service dog. The parent can issue commands to the dog to keep the child from running into traffic or into a crowd. The service animal also provides emotional comfort for the child as a transitional object, a role not restricted to therapy animals. The parents also benefit from the companionship of the service animal. The dog can help the parents cope with the stresses and worry for their child [8].

Olga Solomon’s article “Doing, Being and Becoming” highlights a new understanding of how children with ASD interact and reorient their understanding of the social world. Social interaction is thought of as language based, and as such is a privileged way for humans to interact [6]. However, understanding sociality as a “mediated property of the sociocultural environment rather than an individual characteristic” (111)[6] may help explain why some children with ASD open up and respond to animals. She also discusses the idea of doing (what people do), being (who they are), and becoming (what kind of people they are developing into). She claims “sociality is almost never about being social, but is almost always about doing something together, and becoming different in the process” (122) [6]. AAT can help children and adults with ASD to their place in the larger social sphere by giving them the interactions to become socially tuned and adept. [6]

In an example of human/animal interaction Solomon theorizes that playing fetch with a therapy dog helped another boy to understand reciprocity. The dog and the boy engage in a “relationship of response” (122)[6]. The boy has to understand how being with another entity works, in this case how his actions relate to the dog’s responses. At the end of the exercise the boy looked into the dog’s face, initiating face-to-face contact, something autistic children are reluctant to do with other adults. In this way the dog acts as a bridge to what Solomon describes as a “more richly inhabited social world” (122)[6].

Areas for Future Investigation

Children with autism may not automatically like dogs [8] (or horses, since Grandin et al have discussed horses as therapy animals). However, the number of animals that can take on a therapy role is not restricted to canines. How might other animals fulfill the role of a therapy animal effectively? For children with ASD, do the animals have to be restricted to dogs? What other animals might be good companion/therapy animals and how might the animal’s effectiveness be measured? [8]

One of the shortcomings Turner indicates about the AAT field is the lack of a consistent language and terminology to describe practices and approaches. How can the field be unified linguistically to reflect shared knowledge and theory?[12] “The methodologies used to study AAT effects show conceptual, procedural, and statistical weakness, which raises doubts regarding the validity among the professional(s)” [13] in reference to the effectiveness of AAT. How might these weaknesses be address in the literature and practitioners and researchers encouraged and empowered to conduct rigorous studies? [14]

Key Resources

Baron-Cohen, S., Leslie, A., Frith, U. (1985). Does the autistic child have a “theory of mind”? Cognition. 21. 37-46.

The authors seek to recast the view of autism as an inability to comprehend other mental states. The authors considered that autistic children lack a comprehensive ‘Theory of Mind’, “knowing what other people know, want, feel, or believe” (38). The authors test this conception by setting up an experiment in which someone with a theory of mind could attribute different beliefs to others. A ‘doll’ that does not know that its marble has switched positions when it left the room would not point to where the marble is now upon reentering. The children with autism indicated that the doll would think the marble was in the new position, indicating the children with autism did not attribute different beliefs to the doll.

Grandin, T., Fine, A., Bowers, C. (2010). The use of therapy animals with individuals with autism spectrum disorders. In Fine, A (Ed), Handbook on animal-assisted therapy: Theoretical foundations and guidelines (247-263).

Building off AAT and autism literature as well as anecdotal accounts Temple Grandin, Aubrey H. Fine, and Christine M. Bowers describes the role a therapy dog may play for someone with autism. Beyond just the therapy dog, they discuss the role service dogs play. Service dogs have a legally defined role while therapy dogs do not. A child with autism can be physically attached to the service dog in public. The dog can then keep the child from running or bolting. However, similar benefits to the child from therapy dogs are noted. Service dogs also can help the parents cope with the stresses of caring for an autistic child. The service animal works with the child for long periods of time and can act as a transitional object, enabling the child to learn social skills and other beneficial behaviors.

Pavlides, M. (2008). Animal-assisted interventions for individuals with autism. Philadelphia, PA.

Pavlides provides in the first chapter (available:here) background into the history of autism as well as motivating a call for more research into the treatment and mitigation of symptoms. The history of human interaction with animals is also mentioned as a motivating factor for engagement with autism because people with ASD “experience the world in a fashion similar to that of animals.” Treatment with animals is encouraged due to evidence supporting positive reactions and responses from those with ASD.

Solomon, O. (2012). Doing, being and becoming: The sociality of children with autism in activities with therapy dogs and other people. Cambridge Anthropology. 30(1). 109-126.

Solomon’s article focuses on rethinking how sociality works for the individual. Rather than considering sociality a property, she considers it a “mediated property of the sociocultural environment rather than an individual characteristic” (111). The background of the article includes the idea of ‘worlding’, the way a person feels at home in the world. An animal companion can help a child with ASD orient themselves in the world with help from his or her therapy dog and learn a way of being social not reliant on other people. Solomon shares two experiences between child, parents, therapists, handlers, and therapy dogs illustrating how interacting with the therapy dog allowed the child to explore how to be social.

Turner, J. (2012). Animal assisted therapy and autism intervention: A synthesis of the literature. Research Papers. Paper 119. Retrieved from: 5f0abedd53cff2af>

Jocelyn Turner provides in her thesis a historical background of AAT as well as ways that ASD can be diagnosed and treated. She points to inconsistencies in the AAT treatment literature and recommends ways to correct those issues, such as more scientifically accepted and rigorous testing tools, diverse populations, and reporting. The author points to accounts in the literature that suggest animals may act as a transitional object, something akin to a safety blanket for children, to help them cope and adjust. A therapy dog could assist a child with ASD to understand actions and consequences, something some people with ASD struggle understanding in social situations. A review of the literature suggests having a therapy animal present for those with ASD can increase the effectiveness of therapeutic approaches.

References

  1. ^ Autism. (3 July, 2012.). In MedlinePlus. Retrieved from: 7a12c6e01c13fc32>

  2. ^ Baron-Cohen, S., Leslie, A., & Frith, U. (1985). Does the autistic child have a “theory of mind”? Cognition. 21. 37-46

  3. ^ Autism Spectrum disorders (15 November, 2012). In National Institute of Child Health & Human Development. Retrieved from: //www.nichd.nih.gov/health/topics/autism/conditioninfo/Pages/default.aspx

  4. ^ Autism Fact Sheet (4 May 2012). In National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke. Retrieved from: fe0730c2669acfc>

  5. ^ Pavlides, M. (2008). Animal-assisted interventions for individuals with autism. Philadelphia, PA.

  6. ^ a b c d e f g Solomon, O. (2012). Doing, being and becoming: The sociality of children with autism in activities with therapy dogs and other people. Cambridge Anthropology. 30(1). 109-126.

  7. ^ Turner, J. (2012). Animal assisted therapy and autism intervention: A synthesis of the literature. Research Papers. Paper 119. Retrieved from: 5f236bb92bf42b1d>

  8. ^ a b c d e f Grandin, T., Fine, A., & Bowers, C. (2010). The use of therapy animals with individuals with autism spectrum disorders. In Fine, A (Ed), Handbook on animal-assisted therapy: Theoretical foundations and guidelines (247-263).

  9. ^ Turner, J. (2012). Animal assisted therapy and autism intervention: A synthesis of the literature. Research Papers. Paper 119. Retrieved from: 109ff385565dab9d>

  10. ^ Turner, J. (2012). Animal assisted therapy and autism intervention: A synthesis of the literature. Research Papers. Paper 119. Retrieved from: 3f734bf02e7f1376>

  11. ^ Turner, J. (2012). Animal assisted therapy and autism intervention: A synthesis of the literature. Research Papers. Paper 119. Retrieved from: 3e4e4576481a1de5>

  12. ^ Turner, J. (2012). Animal assisted therapy and autism intervention: A synthesis of the literature. Research Papers. Paper 119. Retrieved from: 6e1b8a6eb6708ac>

  13. ^ Turner, J. (2012). Animal assisted therapy and autism intervention: A synthesis of the literature. Research Papers. Paper 119. Retrieved from: 3d7cb94440702b78>

  14. ^ Turner, J. (2012). Animal assisted therapy and autism intervention: A synthesis of the literature. Research Papers. Paper 119. Retrieved from: 4b5dcf143aef9f3>

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