While there is no cure for Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), animal therapy for autism has become a reliable source of support and growth. In becoming pet lovers/owners, people with autism grow to use animals for emotional, physical, and psychological support. Including a pet in autism treatment can be a truly transformative experience.
Studies on the relationship between animals and autism are almost universally positive. Studies show that animal interaction helps neurodivergent individuals engage more fully with others and develop more confidence and independence. In many cases, animal-assisted therapy improved the individual’s communication skills. An independent study suggests that individuals with autism smile more when around animals. Just another fantastic benefit of this intervention and tool!
Types of Animal Therapy for Autism
Animal therapy for autism is not limited to dogs; it can include any animal that provides physical, emotional, or social support. However, mammals are better for therapeutic animals than amphibians, birds, or reptiles. Yes, fish can be soothing, but they cannot provide the interactions that help develop a child’s skills. No matter which type of animal is selected, here are five ways animals can support autistic individuals of any age.
1. Service Animals
A service animal will almost always be a dog, and typically certain breeds are selected to be trained to serve. These include Labradors, Golden Retrievers, and German Shepherds. Service animals can work with individuals of any age on the autism spectrum. These animals are specially trained to help navigate physical space, regulate emotions, and avoid negative interactions. Because these animals are highly qualified working animals, they can be expensive. However, there are many nonprofit organizations to aid with funding.
Overall, studies point to the efficacy of service dogs for autistic children or adults.
Service dogs are allowed in almost any public setting, as they are encouraged to be with their handler at all times. Individuals with autism working with service dogs must communicate with and control their dog, which means that having a service dog will not be beneficial for all cases.
Depending on the circumstances, here are a few things a service dog might be able to do for an autistic child:
- Recognizing distress and helping soothe the owner
- Preventing self-harming behavior or the possible harming of others
- Reducing anxiety levels by applying pressure or lying across the owner’s lap
- Improving sleep and relaxation
- Protecting the individual if they are likely to run away or step into danger
- Recognizing and alerting others to seizures or other physical symptoms.
2. Therapy Animals
Therapy animals can be any species, including birds, cats, dogs, guinea pigs, and horses, brought into a therapeutic setting, medical office, or school. Therapy pets can promote communication about needs and feelings, help individuals manage emotions, and even build skills related to playing. These animals are meant to support positive social interactions.
These animals are helpful to people with autism because they can foster healthy emotional and intellectual experiences. Additional benefits include:
- Encouraging social communication
- Improving engagement, responsiveness, and joint attention
- Supporting play skills
- Providing reinforcement and motivation while learning
- Providing a physical outlet with which to regulate
- Reducing emotional anxiety
- Making therapeutic experiences more effective
3. Emotional Support Animals
Emotional support animals are most commonly pets. They aid a person with autism in navigating stressful situations, like travel, school, and medical appointments. Typically, emotional support animals must be certified by a clinician to enter a specific setting where animals are generally not allowed.
Studies show that individuals who have autism and have pets or emotional support animals gain many positive benefits from the experience. No matter what the species, these animals can:
- Help an individual self soothe
- Encourage social communication
- Lower anxiety in stressful, high traffic locations and events
Essentially, emotional support animals are pets that contribute to their owner’s sense of well-being. Certification can come from a doctor, therapist, or other medical professionals. With the proper documentation, emotional support animals can typically accompany their owners in a variety of settings, though there are limits depending on the size and temperament of the animal.
A recent study established that children with autism who had emotional support animals improved social skills by sharing and expressing compassion with their peers. Researchers also noted that the positive impact would be most significant if the pet arrived when the child was old enough to recognize and remember the event.
For many on the autism spectrum, pets provide a unique social bond that is not available by any other means. Research suggests that having a pet promotes prosocial behaviors. Pets help to foster shared interactions like conversations and smiles. The arrival of a pet into any person’s life can be transformative.
5. Hippotherapy (Equine Therapy)
Hippotherapy is a unique animal therapy involving riding and taking care of horses. While it has not been studied as intensively as other forms of animal therapy, it has been shown to support physical, social, and emotional skills. Additionally, horseback riding can have many physical and social benefits.
Hippotherapy is a well-established and studied technique often covered by insurance. While this therapy won’t be an excellent fit for everyone, those who enjoy the experience derive therapeutic value. Additional benefits include:
- Building physical strength and muscle tone through horseback riding. This is particularly helpful since many individuals with autism have low muscle density and tone.
- Expanding social skills by guiding and communicating with a horse.
- Increasing engagement with peers.
- Improving language skills.
- Lowering stress and irritability.
It is essential to recognize another form of animal therapy: interactions with dolphins. These interactions have also been studied and found to be purposeful. However, while the experience may be positive for the individual with autism, it can be very stressful for the dolphins themselves. This distress can ultimately lead to negative consequences for the child and the dolphins. Additionally, dolphin interactions are expensive and difficult to sustain. It’s not easy to bond with animals that live in the ocean!
Therapy animals can be found in your local animal shelter, pet store, or through an organization. Keep these tips in mind when selecting an animal to help your autistic child:
- Introduce the animal to your child and observe their behavior and physiology. Watch for responsiveness and engagement to ensure a good match.
- Watch for intimidation from either party.
- Ensure that the animal is calm, healthy, and aware.
- Try to have multiple interactions over time.
Obtaining a therapy animal can lead to transformative experiences that help with everyday life.
Animal therapy can be combined with other treatments. Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) therapy is the most effective, evidence-based treatment for autism. ABA therapy is endorsed by the U.S. Surgeon General’s office, the National Institute of Mental Health, and the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, among other organizations and agencies.
For more information about our ABA therapy services, contact us today and ask about a free consultation.