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Animal Therapy For Autism: The Social, Emotional, and Physical Benefits

Pet and animal therapy has been shown to yield great benefits for people of all abilities and disabilities – encouraging social interaction, comfort, play, and joy. When it comes to animal therapy for autism, the research is quite new and limited, but much of the evidence found so far suggests incredible positive effects for people on the autism spectrum.

An Overview of the Benefits of Animal Therapy for Autism

One of the most recognizable benefits of animal therapy for autistic individuals is the increase in positive social behaviors. When children on the spectrum are accompanied by an animal, they laugh, talk, smile, and participate more. Animals serve as a conversation-starter to ease social communication. They boost feelings of self-confidence and well-being, significantly reducing the feelings of loneliness people with autism often face. They have proven quite effective at calming an autistic individual through stressful situations, helping to avoid emotional meltdowns or lash-outs.

Animal therapy can also help a person focus their attention. One study demonstrates that children with autism looked at dogs’ faces longer than humans’ faces. Animal interaction can also increase physical fitness, strength, and coordination.

Types of Animal Therapy

Animal therapy comes in a variety of forms, including service animals, therapy animals, family pets, emotional support animals, and hippotherapy (also known equestrian therapy).

  • Service animals are professionally trained and certified to meet their owners’ unique needs. Legally allowed in any public place, a service animal provides a secure companion for a person with autism as they travel, visit the dentist or doctor, attend school activities, or other stressful situations. They can be trained to curb meltdowns, aggression, or self-harm, and can even provide protection for people with ASD who might wander off into danger.
  • Therapy animals offer comfort through medical procedures and physical or occupational therapy. They also promote emotional and intellectual openness and communication in therapy sessions. Typically used in healthcare facilities, such as hospitals, therapy animals are not legally required access to all public places.
  • Family pets provide unconditional, affectionate companionship for a person with autism. Caring for a pet supports practical skills, responsibility, and empathy. Walking a dog or other pet also provides physical exercise.
  • Some families choose to have their pet certified by a health professional as an “emotional support animal” that is essential to the owner’s emotional well-being. While these autism support animals aren’t allowed in all public places, they might be given access to some places where a pet isn’t usually permitted, such as schools, hospitals, or certain travel circumstances.
  • Hippotherapy or equestrian therapy is the riding and caring for horses. This type of animal therapy boosts social, emotional, and intellectual skills. Guiding a horse requires an individual to carefully think through how to communicate their desires, which is a significant skill for people with autism. Horseback riding also promotes physical strength and improves the low muscle tone.

Considerations Before Getting an Animal

Although there are many positive aspects of pet therapy and autism, it is important to consider a child’s unique needs before adopting an animal. Some people have physical or psychological hindrances to getting a pet, such as allergies, fears, or sensitivity to noises. Find an animal that will produce positive outcomes and improves needs of the individual with ASD.

Some parents have been surprised by how difficult it can be to juggle the needs of children with autism and dogs at the same time – even when the dogs are highly trained. An adult service dog owner must be capable of directing and guiding their dog, which is not possible for every person on the spectrum.

Assistance Dogs International and Autism Service Dogs of America assist in training, education, and adoption of therapy or service dogs.

The Research in Support of Animal Therapy

More research on animal therapy and autism is still needed to confirm its benefits. Yet, almost all the research that has been conducted shows positive results.

  • It’s been shown that children with autism that grow up with a family pet tend to have better social skills than those that don’t. Another study demonstrated that pets improved autistic children’s abilities to offer to share, offer comfort, and reciprocating emotions.
  • 22 children on the spectrum were found to be more interactive in therapy sessions accompanied by a dog. Another group of 12 autistic boys showed less aggression and more smiles during dog-accompanied therapy sessions.
  • The Western Journal of Nursing Research recently detailed a study in which autistic children were happier and more aware of their environment after play time with a live dog than those who played with a ball or a stuffed dog.
  • Interestingly, equestrian therapy improves language use and social understanding. One study found “significant improvements in social cognition, social communication, total number of words, and new words spoken. Another study found a longterm reduction in ‘irritability behavior’ as a result of hippotherapy.”

Areas that Need More Research

More research is needed to determine just how effective animal therapy is for people with autism (and when it might be hurtful rather than helpful). While there are many anecdotal examples of an autism support animal improving social skills, the scientific evidence is more slim. Many of the studies conducted have involved trained animals, meaning official results of pet therapy and autism still need to be explored (although many parents assert its effectiveness).

There are endless types and severities of issues associated with individual ASDs. It’s not clear yet which people with autism will have the best results from animal therapy. Larger and more defined studies are still needed. Dr. Melissa Nishawala, medical director of the Autism Spectrum Disorders Clinical and Research Program says, “That means making sure the children involved have been formally diagnosed with a form of autism, defining what the ‘therapy’ is, and being clear about what outcomes the study is assessing.”

For additional ways to increase the well-being of adults with autism, learn more about our center’s resources.