Animal-assisted interventions have begun to gain recognition as viable and acceptable alternative therapy approaches for a variety of psychological conditions. Elderly people who experience isolation and loneliness benefit greatly when they get a pet. Likewise, equine therapy has been shown to greatly improve emotional expression in some people unable to exhibit their feelings through more traditional forms of treatment. Other research has demonstrated that bringing a family pet into the home of an autistic child increases their willingness to communicate and interact with the animal and family members. But to date, no research has assessed how children with autism (ASD) react when animals are present in the classroom setting.
Children with autism tend to have significant deficits, particularly in the area of communication. They have impaired ability to recognize and express emotions and are limited in their ability to interact with their peers and others. To see if they show improved communication with human-animal interaction (HAI), Marguerite E. O’Haire of the School of Psychology at the University of Queensland in Brisbane, Australia led a study involving 99 children. The participants were split into groups of three, each group consisting of two children without ASD (TD) and one with. The groups were monitored as they engaged in brief intervals of free play with toys and then with two guinea pigs.
O’Haire found that the children with ASD exhibited more communication, eye contact, and interaction to their peers and to adults when they were engaged with the animals compared to when they were allowed to play with the toys. In fact, the children with ASD not only demonstrated more outgoing behaviors; they also smiled more and made more eye contact than when they were given toys. Additionally, the TD children responded more assertively to the children with ASD in the presence of animals. O’Haire believes that HAI proved to create an environment that was non-threatening and less stressful to the children with ASD than the toy setting. She added, “Indeed, the current results indicate that animals may provide a more powerful stimulus than toys for encouraging positive affect in social contexts for children with ASD.” She hopes that the findings of this study encourage clinicians and teachers working with children with ASD to consider the benefits of incorporating HAI techniques.
O’Haire, M.E., McKenzie, S.J., Beck, A.M., Slaughter, V. (2013). Social behaviors increase in children with autism in the presence of animals compared to toys. PLoS ONE 8(2): e57010. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0057010
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