Animals have been used for years as a form of therapy and service for individuals with disabilities. Whether as household pets, structured animal programs, or supervised interactions, the benefits of a furry friend are often undeniable. There are countless amounts of volunteers that share their pets with others, service dogs to aid in vision or hearing impairments, as well as families that aren’t complete without their beloved pet. Humans have a strong, unexplained bond with their pets, and the rewards are evident in most people, with or without disabilities. In autistic children, the benefits of pet therapy are being explored more and more. How can an animal assist in the development of a child with ASD?
In children with autism, there are many physical and emotional benefits that come along with this. According to an article on EverydayHealth.com, parents and therapists of children with autism have noticed higher self-esteem, confidence, and joy, in addition to the children becoming more physically developed, improving overall strength and coordination after structured exposure to pets. According to the Autism Service Dogs of America, one leading program dedicated to providing service dogs for families with children affected by ASD, the dogs serve as a “physical and emotional anchor” for children, providing a stable, calming presence that makes families feel safe and secure, while also potentially minimizing public outbursts. A New York Times article highlights how this organization can help families raise money to train and maintain one of these service dogs.
While there is not much in terms of studies done to back it up in individuals with autism, pet therapy is sparking the interest of more researchers with the increasing levels of those diagnosed with ASD. According to another article in The New York Times, people who work with therapy animals expect upcoming research to back up their observations. They have noticed that having a dog around not only brightens people up, but allows for communication in those who otherwise may refuse to speak, and is therapeutic in movement in that children are encouraged to pet the animals and interact. Some even suggest that while the children might find difficulty communicating and relating to other humans, they do not have this problem when relating to a dog.
Other therapies, such as structured programs with animals such as dolphins and horses have also proven effective. Since the 1970’s, research has been done showing that dolphins increase the attention span of a child while contributing to faster learning and a better understanding of information. An article entitled “Animals for Autism,” describes dolphin assisted therapy as a way to improve the emotional control of individuals, while allowing for more communication and minimizing ritual behaviors. Hippotherapy is also highlighted in this article as a way to change brainwave patterns due to exposure. Horseback riding is also an activity that can stimulate the senses of those with ASD as well as minimizing stimming.
No matter how they are used in therapy or everyday life, pets can help improve the quality of life of anyone. Many children with ASD have found companionship in these animals, and there is no doubt that they have enhanced the togetherness of families everywhere.