Animal-assisted therapy can vary from something as simple as bringing a pet into the home to something as structured as programs that offer horseback riding or swimming with dolphins. Interacting with animals can help children with autism to develop physically and improve their strength, coordination, and physical abilities. Most importantly the relationship formed with animals can help autistic children have a better sense of well-being, more self-confidence and can offer transferable skills of empathy and relating to others.
A study, entitled “The Effects of Animal-Assisted Therapy on a Child with Autism” by a New Mexico Highlands University School of Social Work graduate student showed that therapies based on animal-assistance improved an autistic child’s social skills. The study showed children undergoing animal-assisted therapy benefited from lower blood pressure and reduced insomnia. The companionship of animals also promoted a base of healthy character development within them, including personality traits such as being respectful, trusting, contributing, committed, self-confident, and responsible. Autistic children can also learn decision-making skills, problem-solving skills, and both language and social skills through interactions with animals.
The Austin Dog Alliance holds weekly classes that use dogs to calm and teach social skills to children with autism. The alliance started bringing trained therapy dogs to special education classes at area schools in 2006. The calming effect the dogs had on the students were immediately apparent. Teachers would wait to explain complicated material until the dogs were around, Debi Kraker, the alliance’s executive director said.
Scott Wilkins’ son Benjamin has been going to the classes for a few years, said the dogs work wonders.
Benjamin, 16, usually doesn’t enjoy social outings due to fears that he’ll make mistakes in social settings, Wilkins said. But Benjamin always looks forward to the classes, Wilkins said.
“It’s a place that he can go that he feels safe,” Wilkins said.
Wilkins said Benjamin has even made a few friends in the class.
If animal-assisted therapy is something you may want to explore for your child, talk with your child’s doctor. There may be programs in your area that your doctor can refer you to.
There are also services to provide families with dogs that have been specially trained to work with children with autism. These dogs have proven to be amazing additions to families of autistic children and can even help to keep them calm and comforted on family outings. For more information, contact an organization such as Autism Service Dogs of America.