How Do Animals Help Children With Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD)?
Sat, April 10, 2021

How Do Animals Help Children With Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD)?


Animals help support and provide comfort to people with mental health disorders. For example, Daniel the “emotional support duck” has helped its owner Carla Fitzgerald, 37, cope with PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) since her accident in 2013, reported Jacqueline Boyd of The Conversation, a news and analysis website. The use of emotional support animals has become a big business in the US, but it is not only ducks that contribute to a person’s mental health. Other support animals also include pigs, cats, turkeys, miniature horses, and chickens. It appears that all types of animals are more utilized now to help people with PTSD, autism, and other conditions.

Animal-Assisted Interventions (AAI) for Children With Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD) Among French Facilities (2018)

Claire Philippe-Peyroutet and Marine Grandgeorge of Purdue, a world-renowned, public research university, found that 60.1% of 232 facilities that replied to our new questionnaire reported using animal interventions for ASD children. 45.6% wanted to maintain their current AAI while 44.8% sought to extend AAI to other children. 9.6% wanted to develop their current AAI by the increasing frequency and/or improving the concept. 3.2% of facilities would halt AAI due to financial constraints, difficulties surrounding animal care, ASD children showing a lack of enthusiasm, and doubts about benefits for these children.

84.1% of the facilities using AAI for ASD children were day or week care facilities. 78% of facilities offering AAI for ASD children stated how they chose the children involved in AAI. 7.7% of facilities offered AAI to all ASD children without selection. 86.2% of facilities based their selection first on each ASD child’s personalized educational program, particularly taking into consideration their skills, degree of autonomy, and preferences. 66.8% of facilities using AAI for ASD children only offered individual interventions (10.1%). 23.1% alternated these two types of interventions according to the kids and their objectives.

68.3% of ASD children participated in AAI sessions every week, albeit in varying frequencies. 8.1% and 6.5% of ASD children had the opportunity to participate in AAI each day or twice a week, respectively. However, only 4.3% of ASD children had AAI every other week or once every month whereas 8.6% attended AAI sessions less frequently. The most common animal species involved in AAI for ASD children were horses (79.7%), dogs (25.9%), rabbits (17.2%), farm animals (e.g., cow, goat, sheep, pig, poultry; 16.8%), and donkeys (12.5%).

Other animal species were rodents such as hamsters (8.6%), cats (5.2%), fish (5.2%), and birds (2.2%). 59.5% of facilities only used one species in AAI whereas 40.5% of facilities used several in the same or different types of AAI: 14.7% used two species, 8.2% three species, and 17.7% four or more species. 58.2% of facilities stated their AAI objectives. The most common ones were improving children’s well-being and self-esteem (81.5%), socialization (78.5%), and bodywork (60.7%).

A smaller proportion of facilities reported the following objectives: education (12.6%), sensorial skills (6.7%), and communication (5.9%). 48.3% of facilities experienced difficulties but 86.6% said they encountered some difficulties. The most common ones being difficulties were budget constraints (47.3%) and lack of time (23.2%). Other difficulties mentioned by the facilities were concerns about animal care and maintenance (12.5%), ASD children (10.7%), facility staff (6.3%), doubts about benefits for ASD children (3.6%), and partners (3.6%).



The Human-Animal Bond Help Children With Autism

This special bond dates back to centuries, noted Brian Krans of Healthline, a medical information and health advice website. Interestingly, animals have been used in therapy since the 18th century (1792), which was performed in York Retreat, England, said Debra Mims and Rhondda Waddell of ACTA Scientific Neurology, an internationally peer-reviewed journal. England’s York Retreat used chickens, rabbits, and other farm animals to “enhance the humanity of the emotionally ill.” And this holds true until today. Director of participant programs for Canine Companions for Independence (CCI), Clark Pappas, said they have been training service dogs to assist autistic children for two decades. For example, golden and Labrador retrievers are trained to help owners navigate in different situations, including helping students with autism in the classroom.

Pappas and his colleagues at CCI reported that dogs are helpful in assisting parents when they leave the house. Since some children with autism are hesitant to leave their parents’ side, having a dog that would accompany them could help taking trips and running errands easier for both kids and parents. Pappas said, “It enables a sense of calm to exist when the parents and kids are able to go out.” Marguerite E. O’Haire and colleagues’ research supports Pappas’s assertion. Published in PLOS ONE, a peer-reviewed open access scientific journal, the authors used blind ratings to compare animal interaction to playing with toys, which is another common tool to help children with autism socialize with their peers.

The authors compared how well kids aged five to 13 socialized with adults, as well as their “typically-developing peers” during free time.” One group was given toys while the other was in a room with two hamsters.  O’Haire and colleagues found that autistic children who played with the hamsters were more sociable, as the kids talked, smiled, laughed, looked at faces, and made physical contact with others. They were also less likely to cry, whine, frown, and exhibited other negative behavior than those who played with toys.  



Outside the Classroom, There Are Other Ways Animals Can Help Kids With ASD

Animals can help foster acceptance. For instance, many of the pets that Autistic Bridges, a program of Virginia Beach SPCA, help children with special needs see how easy it is to love a fellow living, breathing creature, stated Purina, a producer and marketer of pet food. “To bring in a pet that has a special need themselves, it's nice to teach through that lens. It lets them know that being different and unique is something to be commended," said Amy McNally of Virginia Beach SPCA. There are instances when introducing or bringing pets with different types of coats stimulate the minds of kids with autism. Children with autism often have tactile issues, said McNally. Hence, they “either really enjoy petting the pets or are very deterred by it.”



It’s up to parents whether they want to bring a pet home. Pets help children with autism cope with their surroundings, but it depends whether a child shows interest in pet ownership.