For those of us who have had pets in our lives, it’s no great surprise to learn that interactions with animals can have therapeutic and healing benefits. Many animals soothe, comfort, and calm, just by their quiet presence. And animals are now also being used as a form of autism therapy.
A New Mexico Highlands University School of Social Work graduate student named Jennifer Baról lead a research project to study the benefits and impact of animal-assisted therapies on children with autism when used as a treatment tool.
The study, entitled “The Effects of Animal-Assisted Therapy on a Child with Autism” ran for 15 weeks between July and November of 2006. It was geared toward the goal of discovering whether or not there is any evidence that therapies based on animal-assistance would be able to improve an autistic child’s social skills.
The results of the study were interesting. For example, before undergoing the animal-assisted therapy with an eight-year-old Australian Cattle Dog named Henry, participant Zachary, who was five years old, experienced a dramatic struggle in order to communicate. Zachary was prone to throwing tantrums as well as covering his ears and eyes when he became frustrated with his lack of ability to be understood. Participation in new activities was stressful to him. He couldn’t understand how to play with others and had never before uttered a complete sentence.
However, once Zachary met and bonded with Henry, he went through a virtual transformation. His self-assurance level is much higher and he is willing to experience new activities with an obvious curiosity. Furthermore, Zachary is better able to understand what is going on around him, including the needs of others. Moreover, halfway through the therapy for the research project, Zachary completed his first sentence.
In the case of Zachary, a whole new world of experiences and understanding was opened up by the animal-assisted therapy. Within the mental hospital clinical reports, there have been many reports of autistic children who have built strong relationships with individual animals, such as pet dogs or cats. When autistic children play with animals, any violent tendencies they may have will typically disappear. They take on quite maternal characteristics, taking special care of the animal including feeding, cleaning up after them, and interacting with them.
The blood pressure of autistic children will also usually be lowered when experiencing an animal treatment. Furthermore, symptoms such as insomnia and headache can be eased with this treatment.
The companionship of animals can help reduce any lonely feelings in autistic children, promoting 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.
This kind of therapy can be beneficial overall, as well as in times of greater trial, such as puberty – when your child will go through many changes and have many questions and will be in need of greater stress relief.