8 Benefits of Animal-Assisted Therapy for Children with Autism

By raluca.olariu@…, 7 December, 2021
cat touching human hand

What is animal-assisted therapy?

Animal-assisted therapy (ATT) is a therapeutic approach that involves working with animals to improve human life. It has been used for over 100 years, but it was not until the 1970s that it began to gain momentum as a form of treatment. The first documented use of AAT was in 1894 by Dr. John Watson who worked with dogs to treat patients suffering from tuberculosis.

Today,  ATT is also used for reducing autism-related symptoms and improving behavior and cognition in individuals with autism spectrum disorders.

The goal of ATT is to create positive interactions between humans and animals so that they can learn about each other's behaviors and emotions. This helps them develop skills and abilities that will lead to better relationships with others. There are many different types of ATT programs including:

1. Animal-Assisted Activities - These programs involve using animals to facilitate play or work experiences for people with special needs. 

2. Social Skills Training - These programs teach specific skills that improve social interaction such as eye contact, body language, and appropriate social responses.

3. Animal-Directed Interaction - These programs focus on teaching basic communication skills through direct interaction with the animal.

4. Behavior Modification - These programs teach individuals how to control their own behavior.

5. Play Therapy - These programs encourage children to interact with toys and pets.

6. Group Work - These programs involve groups of people interacting with one another    

What is the difference between animal-assisted therapy and animal-assisted activities?

An animal-assisted intervention involves direct interaction between humans and animals. It includes petting, grooming, feeding, and playing with animals.

Animal-assisted activities don't involve direct human-animal interaction. Instead, they focus on teaching social skills through indirect interactions with animals. Examples include taking part in group activities with animals, learning about animals through books, videos, and toys, and observing animals in natural settings.  

What are the benefits of animal-assisted therapy?

Animal-assisted treatments for autism spectrum disorders have plenty of benefits - they can improve a child’s self-esteem, increase their ability to interact socially, and even help them learn. In addition, these therapies can also be beneficial for adults who struggle with anxiety or depression.

Here are some of the ways that animal-assisted therapy helps people with an autism spectrum disorder:

  • It improves self-esteem.

Children with autism often suffer from low self-esteem because they may not understand how other people feel or what others expect of them. Animal-assisted therapy provides opportunities for children to connect with animals and gain confidence by interacting with them. This can lead to improvements in behavior and feelings of self-worth.

  • It raises empathy.

Autistic children often lack empathy; they don't always notice when someone else feels sad, angry, or happy. As a result, they may miss out on important information about themselves and others. Therapy with service animals allows children to practice developing empathy through guided interactions with animals and improve their social communication skills. 

  • It teaches social skills.

Children with autism tend to have problems in their social interaction with other people. They may avoid eye contact, or fail to respond appropriately to basic communication with others. Through animal-assisted therapy, children get the chance to practice making friends and communicating with others, thus improving their social behavior and social communication. 

  • It promotes positive reinforcement.

Children with the autism spectrum often have trouble understanding and responding to negative feedback. For example, if you tell a child that he's doing something wrong, he might become upset and refuse to try again. However, if you praise him instead, he'll want to keep trying new things. Similarly, children with autism may ignore instructions or stop participating in group activities because they're afraid of being told "no." By encouraging participation, animal-assisted therapy gives children the opportunity to practice using positive reinforcement techniques.

  • It helps develop language skills.

Children with autism spectrum usually have difficulty expressing themselves verbally and may have trouble forming sentences or asking questions. Through animal-assisted treatment, children can practice speaking and listening to each other while working with animals.

  • It reduces stress.

Stress can cause many problems for people with autism, including aggression, tantrums, repetitive behaviors, and meltdowns. Stressful situations like school exams, family gatherings, and doctor visits can trigger symptoms such as hyperactivity, irritability, and sleep disorders. Therapy with service animals offers a safe way to reduce stress levels and calm down during stressful times.

  • It helps with attention deficit disorder (ADD).

People who have attention deficit disorder may find it difficult to focus their attention on one thing at a time and may also be easily distracted by extraneous stimuli. In addition, ADD sufferers may have trouble paying attention to details. Animal-assisted therapy has been shown to improve concentration and focus in children with ADD.

  • It improves motor skills.

Autistic children are more likely than typical kids to have poor fine motor skills, which means they struggle with tasks involving small movements. These include writing, buttoning clothes, tying shoelaces, and playing musical instruments. Children with autism may also have difficulties with gross motor skills, such as running, jumping, climbing stairs, and riding a bike. Animal-assisted therapy is designed to help children strengthen these skills.  

How does animal-assisted therapy work?

The goal of animal-assisted therapy is to teach children with autism how to interact with others. To do this, therapists use a variety of animals, from dogs and cats to rabbits and horses (therapeutic horseback riding can work wonders). They place them in the same room with the children, then gradually increase the amount of time spent together. Animals provide opportunities for children to learn new behaviors, such as sitting quietly and waiting for instructions, and to practice existing ones, such as greeting someone when they enter a room.

Animals can also serve as positive role models. For example, if a child struggles with eye contact, a therapist might bring in a dog that makes eye contact whenever possible. This teaches the child that other people can look at him or her without feeling uncomfortable.  

Animal-assisted intervention is gaining popularity because it's relatively easy to implement. Most animals are available through local shelters and rescue organizations. If you don't want to adopt a new pet, consider volunteering with your local shelter or rescue organization. 

If parents of children with autism decide to pursue animal-assisted therapy, remember to keep safety first. Make sure the child isn't allergic to any of the animals being used. Also, make sure there aren't any medical issues that could be aggravated by exposure to animals.

You might also enjoy A Guide to Animal-Assisted Therapy for Children with Autism.

Is there any evidence that animal-assisted therapy works?

There's strong scientific evidence that animal-assisted intervention benefits children with autism spectrum disorders. Studies show that children who receive animal-assisted therapy experience improvements in communication, behavior, and self-help skills. Some studies even suggest that it could lead to improved IQ scores.

One study showed that anxiety scores dropped 24% for participants who received a visit from the volunteer-dog team.

However, not all research supports the effectiveness of animal-assisted therapy. One study found no differences between children who received animal-assisted therapy and those who didn't. Other studies have suggested that some aspects of animal-assisted therapy aren't effective, including using large groups of animals instead of just one.  

How do animals help mental health?

Many researchers believe that animals can improve the lives of people with mental illness by providing companionship, reducing stress levels, and improving moods.

A number of studies have shown that having pets can be beneficial to people with depression. In fact, the presence of a cat or dog has been linked to lower rates of suicide attempts among adults with depression.

Another study showed that patients recovering from heart surgery experienced less pain after being given a pet. Animals can also reduce stress levels and promote relaxation. Some scientists think that animals' ability to make us feel good may stem from their evolutionary history. 

Researchers speculate that these effects may explain why people with mental illnesses often prefer pets over humans.  

Animal-assisted therapy: a step toward healing

It's important to note that many people with mental disorders suffer from low energy levels. Many find themselves unable to fully engage in social activities and enjoy everyday things. Animals are known to exist in high vibrational levels, which means they're more energetic than most people. 

For instance, a study published in The Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine found that people who were exposed to the scent of a rabbit had higher levels of dopamine, a neurotransmitter associated with feelings of happiness and well-being.

Animal-assisted therapy for children helps them connect with nature, gain energy, and restore the body-mind balance.      

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