Pet Assisted Therapy for Autistic Children

May 5, 2015

Frolicking with a puppy, riding a horse, or swimming with a dolphin undoubtedly have the potential to be enriching and memorable experiences for any person, including a person with a disability. Pet Assisted Therapies, (specifically dog therapy) for children on the spectrum have a broad range of roles and potential benefits.  For a child with autism, who struggles with social interaction, sensory issues, and motor skills a pet can be a game changer both in and out of the classroom.  Let’s look at some specifics of how one type of pet therapy- dog therapy, can play a role in your child’s life and create a positive outcome for all involved.

The role of dog therapy-

We all know that dogs can be “man’s best friend” but how else can a dog play a role in your child’s life both at home and in school? On a general level, dogs or any assisted animal therapy can brighten a child’s day and help guard them from such dangers as wandering away from a safe area or a group.  Beyond that the role is far reaching including:  being a reducer of anxiety by lowering heart rates, be a partner to walk and talk with, teach about sensory issues, reduce stereotypical behavior (such as hand flapping, spinning, jumping, and humming) and amazingly be an incentive to connect more socially with others.

Benefits of Dog Assisted Therapy –

The Interactive Autism Network has compiled many studies done my American, Canadians and around the globe about the benefits of dog assisted therapy with autistic children.  The top benefits that emerged as a result of these studies include:

  1. A guardian – Many children with ASD are prone to wander from safe spaces, whether this is from home or school, sometimes with tragic results. A great number of deaths and injuries have been reported, and parents whose children are prone to wander often become continually vigilant and exhausted. The service dogs in the study were able to improve such situations. Trained dogs could block the way of a child wandering away from a group, alert an adult through barking, posturing or whining, and most of all stay with  the child in case wandering became a safety concern.
  2. A Partner for Learning Skills – Canadian researchers noted that some of the children with ASD gained certain skills through their interaction with the dog, like learning to match their pace to the dog’s (and the family’s) while out walking, or how to throw a ball, or how to pet the dog with the correct amount of pressure. Parents reported “decreased anxiety, increased calmness, reduction in the number of meltdowns or tantrums, dissipated/defused anger, and more manageable bedtime routines.”
  3. A Social Connection and Bridge – Dogs who work with Autistic children have shown to benefit the children as a major social connection to the rest of the world.  American studies have shown that a dog’s presence  “greased the wheels” of social give-and-take. People could approach and ask about the dog, learning about autism in the process. The dog became what one researcher has called “a conduit for social capital.”  They increased the likelihood of positive social interaction out in the world for the family of the child with ASD.

To learn more about pet assisted therapies visit Everyday Health and read more.  You will aslo find helpful links to resources regarding this topic.