Success Stories: Rescue Dog Helps Autistic Boy Communicate

The heartwarming story of a boy and his dog is an American tale told time and time again, but never quite like this. Seven months ago, Friends of DeKalb Animal Rescue in Georgia found an emaciated, abused puppy, naming her Xena the Warrior puppy after her miraculous recovery. Little did they know, Xena would be a bit of a miracle herself.  Xena’s pictures were so astonishing that she quickly became a celebrity, bringing in tens of thousands of dollars for the rescue group. At a fundraiser for the animal rescue, Xena picked a pal—running straight to a little boy named Johnny. Johnny is an autistic boy who is verbal, but has always been very withdrawn and uncomfortable with others. Their grand introduction was puppy-love-at-first-sight. Johnny’s family adopted Xena once she was healthy enough to bring home. According to Johnny’s parents, Xena brought about a change in Johnny almost instantly—encouraging him to talk often and excitedly. Johnny asked his mom to make a video of him and Xena for Autism Awareness month, which he learned is also Prevention of Cruelty to Animals month. In the video, Johnny is wonderfully spoken, sending a message about understanding saying, “Spread the word to be nice to animals and nice to kids like me.”

Animal assisted therapy is a popular approach to coping with autism, but rarely is it associated with communication skills and habits like Johnny’s transformation. Perhaps Johnny and Xena’s instant connection had something to do with Xena’s marginalization. Some animal assisted therapy programs are also animal rescue and rehabilitation centers, like Merlin’s Kids. In these programs, like with Johnny’s story, the support is mutual and the affects are astonishing. To see Johnny’s video, visit: https://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=LEG2CqTxHzw. Do Share your opinion on animal assisted therapy or stories of your children with animals!

Animals Help Children With Autism Show Increased Positive Social Behaviors

Research published February 2013 in the open access journal PLOS ONE by Marguerite E O’Haire and colleagues from the University of Queensland, Australia indicates that the existence of an animals in the presence of these children can significantly increase positive social behaviors in children with autism spectrum disorders (ASD).

The authors found that these children were also more sympathetic to social advances from their peers in the presence of the animals than they were when playing with toys. They compared how 5-13 year old children with ASD interacted with adults and typically-developing peers in the company of two guinea pigs compared to toys. The presence of animals also improved  smiling and laughing, and reduced frowning, whining and crying behaviors in children with ASD more than having toys did.

Earlier studies have shown that people are more likely to receive overtures of friendship from strangers when walking a dog than when walking alone, and similar effects have been observed for people holding smaller animals like rabbits or turtles. The authors suggest that this ‘social lubricant’ effect of animals on human social interactions can be particularly important for individuals with socio-emotional disabilities.

The authors believe that the potential of an animal to help children with ASD bond to adults may help advance interactions with therapists, teachers or other adult figures. They also found that animal-assisted intervention may have applications in the classroom as well, saying “For children with ASD, the school classroom can be a stressful and overwhelming environment due to social challenges and peer victimization. If an animal can reduce this stress or artificially change children’s perception of the classroom and its occupants, then a child with ASD may feel more at ease and open to social approach behaviors.”