The role of animals in the lives of humans has changed throughout history. Animals have been worshiped and feared, loved and discarded, treated as property or tools and treated as lifetime companions. Animals have protected humans as watchdogs, guard dogs, and trained law enforcement or military partners. It was perhaps a natural extension of this role to recognize the value of service animals. Most of us have observed dogs assisting individuals with visual or mobility impairments. There are also dogs assisting individuals with hearing impairments, diabetes, seizure disorders, and other medical conditions. And service animals are not always dogs! Many different types of animals, including miniature horses, have been trained to provide specialized assistance to individuals.
Animals have been used as part of therapeutic services as well. Animal-assisted therapy has been recognized for a number of years, and several organizations have developed guidelines, training and certifications processes for animals and handlers. Polices include those from the American Veterinary Medical Association, the ASPCA, and the American Humane Association.
Individuals with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) may benefit from animals in a variety of ways. From a faithful companion, to trained service animal, to animal assisted therapy, research is beginning to demonstrate that animals can benefit individuals with ASD in many ways. Although seen as a new concept and practice, there have been indications of the benefits animals can provide to those with ASD for at least twenty years. A presentation at the Conference on Human-Animal Interactions in 1995 described the researchers’ findings in evaluating the behaviors of a very small number of individuals with their pets (not specially trained service or therapy animals). They found that these individuals displayed behaviors “rarely, if ever, displayed toward human companions” which included sensitivity toward the animal’s needs and feelings, a lack of anger and aggression, and enjoyment in touching the pets. The number of subjects in this paper is so small that it must be considered anecdotal, but is still interesting.
More recent research evaluated the use of animal assisted intervention focusing on emotional expressions of dogs with a group of children and adults. After 12 weeks of training, they found improvement in the correct identification of anger and fear, and the overall number of correctly identified facial expressions. They note that these findings suggest there is some generalization from human-dog interaction to human-human interaction. Other research has demonstrated greater interaction during therapy and greater use of language when animals are involved. One study involved the use of animals in a school-based occupational therapy program, while another measured the frequency of social behaviors in children with ASD engaging with typically developing peers with animals or toys present for the session.
Add to this a history of research showing overall benefits in health when people are engaged with animals (increased exercise and movement, decreased blood pressure, overall calming effect and stress reduction), and it is not surprising that animals could be beneficial to individuals with ASD.
Russell J. Bonanno, M.Ed.
TAP Program Manager