There are many advances in the field of Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) research, but one in particular showing great promise is the field of animal therapy. It is an alternative therapy that uses dogs, horses, and even dolphins to help autistic children gain better pro-social behavior through interaction with animals.
Only a small amount of research has been completed so far, but the few studies have already shown that therapy with animals helps children with ASD. In one study in particular conducted by Berry et al., animal therapy was found to reduce stress, anxiety, and irritation in autistic children.
Most research has used dogs and horses, but other animals, including the Berry et al. study, is taking a closer look at dolphins. One particular study rewards children with ASD by letting them swim with dolphins for completing a pre-determined task.
Horse therapy is showing great results, too. In the “psycho-educational horseback riding” study, Japanese researchers used horse-back riding for children with Pervasive Developmental Disorder (PDD). The study determined children showed enhanced verbal and nonverbal communication skills, more emotional expression, and even better eye contact after spending time with therapy horses. While ASD wasn’t specifically targeted in this study, it has a parallel and promising connection to alternative autism therapies.
A study conducted by Laurel Redefer and Joan Goodman emphasized the value of horse and dog therapy for children with ASD. The results showed that animal therapy reduced autistic behaviors like hand-posturing, humming, repetitive jumping, etc. Also, test subject’s behavior changed after therapy, resulting in autistic children joining in on games with therapists, seeking affection, and even imitating the therapist’s actions in a playful way.
The research so far supports the idea that a child with ASD can make a meaningful connection with a pet, which in turn facilitates better social interaction and functionality. In a study done by Beck & Madresh, they found that the connection between humans and animals provided a sense of security, emotional support, and a sense of relief in difficult situations, especially for children suffering from autism.
While there are plenty of studies being performed in the field of genetics, physiological, and environmental causes of ASD, alternative methods like animal therapy need much more research. The results so far have proven that social interaction and autistic behaviors can be altered and better controlled through animal therapy. This is a promising field of research, and one we’ve only scratched the surface of so far. There is still much more work that needs to be done so that we have better alternative methods for children living with ASD.