Pet or animal-assisted therapy for children with autism is not a new concept, and yet many parents and healthcare practitioners are either not aware of it or not convinced of its benefits. In a 1989 publication of the Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, Laurel Redefer and Joan Goodman put it in very clear terms:
To combat the low sensory and affective arousal levels of autistic children, they present a powerful multisensory stimulus—strong clear sounds, a vivid visual impression, a special smell, and an innovation to touch. They also are demanding—likely to follow, lick, and bark at the rejecting child. And their simple, repetitive nonverbal actions are easy [for the child] to decode.
To understand how pet-assisted therapy can truly benefit a child on the autism spectrum, we must first understand how autism affects the child. Most generally, autism is characterized by difficulties in interacting with others, both verbally and nonverbally. With autism comes a lot of repetitive behavior, possible intellectual disability, lack of coordination, and lack of attention. Each child’s symptoms and degrees of severity vary greatly. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), about 1 in 68 American children is on the autism spectrum, and early signs tend to show themselves around 2-3 years of age (autismspeaks.org).
Medicine is not only science, but also art, and treatments that may work for one person may not work for another. Children on the autism spectrum exhibit traits that vary so vastly from one another that research on the benefits of animal-assisted therapy may not be as expansive as desired. However, direct parent feedback gives us insight on just how beneficial such therapy may be. Although the medical practice where I work is a primary care pediatric practice, we see a lot of autistic children. Many of these children exhibit traits of autism very early on, and frequently our providers can pick up symptoms as early as in their second year of life. When intensive therapy can be started at this early age, we do see greater benefits than when therapy is started later. Medication may also be needed to control outbursts of anger and aggressiveness, self-injurious behavior, extreme hyperactivity, etc., depending on the severity of the child’s symptoms.
Therapies such as Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA), speech therapy, occupational therapy, and physical therapy are frequently used. Animal-assisted therapy presents an adjunctive course of therapy that is less intensive and time-consuming, and the child may accept this treatment much better than other forms of therapy. Of course, this is not to undermine the other methods, which may still need to be used in conjunction with animal-assisted therapy, especially in the early stages of diagnosis; it is simply another option that is too valuable not to consider.
The prognosis for children with autism varies case-by-case; although no cure has been found so far, early diagnosis and treatment can lead to outstanding results and productive, fulfilling lives. Children with autism often exhibit other traits that are incredibly advanced—they may make up for their deficiency in social skills by ways of creativity, artistic talent, scientific brilliance, and many other impressive traits. By overcoming social interaction barriers by the ways of these different modes of treatment, these children can do much better in their lives than anticipated.
1. What is autism? (2016). Autism Speaks, Inc. Retrieved from: https://www.autismspeaks.org/what-autism
2. Goodman, J., Redefer, L. (1989). Brief report: pet-facilitated therapy with autistic children. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, Vol. 19, No. 3