By Dr. Becker
Children with autism often feel highly stressed and anxious in social situations. Animals are well known to provide companionship and stress relief, and this holds true for children with autism, including those in a potentially anxiety-inducing situation at school.
Further, while dogs are what most people think of when it comes to therapy animals, a recent study used guinea pigs – with phenomenal results. Although the researchers stopped short of calling the experience “therapy,” there were significant benefits revealed from this surprisingly simple intervention.
Guinea Pigs in the Classroom Benefit Children with Autism
The latest of a series of studies spanning from 2009 to 2012 included 99 schoolchildren (ages 5 to 12) in Australia (a country where children with autism tend to be included in school classrooms whenever possible).1
The children broke off into groups of three – one child with autism and two without – to play with guinea pigs. The children also wore wristbands that monitored arousal levels, such as feelings of anxiety or excitement. Among the typically developing children, interacting with the guinea pigs lead to increased arousal, likely because the children were excited by their new “friends.”
Among the children with autism, however, arousal levels declined, which suggests the guinea pigs had a calming effect and helped alleviate their stress. As reported by the New York Times:2
“Geraldine Dawson, the director of the Duke Center for Autism and Brain Development, described the work as ‘very promising.’ Autism, she said, is often associated with high levels of arousal and anxiety that interfere with social interaction.
This modest intervention, she said, could readily be adapted by teachers coping with a scarcity of resources. ‘We don’t know what the mechanisms are,’ Dr. Dawson said. ‘Maybe it’s easier to interact with others when you have a third object, rather than face-to-face interaction.’”
The same benefit was notfound when the children played with a toy, however, which suggests it was something about the animal that was beneficial. The children were able to interact with the guinea pigs in multiple ways, including petting, feeding, cleaning the cage, grooming them, or even photographing or drawing the animals.
Parents of children with autism often exclaimed the guinea pigs made their child feel like she or he had a friend at school. It’s thought the animals may act as social buffers “conferring unique anxiolytic effects” for children with autism.
Dogs May Act As ‘Social Lubricants’
While guinea pigs, which will quietly cuddle up in your lap and nibble treats from your fingers (not unlike many dogs), may act as social buffers for children with autism, dogs may act as social lubricants.
Since children with autism often struggle while interacting with others and forming friendships, a dog can help to break the ice with potential playmates. In an interview of 70 parents of children with autism, nearly all (94 percent) of the dog owners believed their children were bonded to their dogs.
You will need to take your child’s sensitivities into account when choosing a dog in order to make this successful. For instance, a dog that barks often may not be a good match for a child who is sensitive to loud noises. If possible, involve your child with autism in the process of selecting a dog so she views it as a positive experience.
If you’re not sure a dog is the best fit, consider a rabbit, horse, or cat instead. Even tarantulas have been used to support children with autism,3 as have pot-bellied pigs. Buttercup is a Vietnamese pot-bellied pig who visits special-needs kids in San Francisco schools, alongside speech pathologist Lois Brady.
Together, the team helps children with autism to improve social skills, and one severely autistic boy is said to have spoken to his classmates for the first time after a visit with Buttercup.4
Therapy Animals May Help You Overcome Physical and Emotional Challenges
That animals appear to provide companionship, support, and stress relief to children with autism is strong testimony to their profound benefits. However, autism is only onecondition that stands to benefit.
Improvements in physical, social, emotional, and cognitive functioning have all been documented following animal-assisted therapy (AAT). This may involve caring for an animal or simply interacting with an animal alone or in a group setting.
Benefits have been shown for Alzheimer’s patients, people recovering from joint-replacement therapy, and those struggling with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), for starters. In addition, AAT programs may include any of the following goals:
Improve post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) Improve fine motor skills Improve wheelchair skills Improve standing balance Increase verbal interactions between group members Increase attention skills (i.e., paying attention, staying on task) Develop leisure/recreation skills Increase self-esteem Reduce anxiety Reduce loneliness Increase vocabulary Aid in long- or short-term memory Improve knowledge of concepts such as size, color, etc. Improve willingness to be involved in a group activity Improve interactions with others Improve interactions with staff Increase exercise
As mentioned, if you’re a parent to a child with autism, some types of animals may be more appropriate for your child than others. While some children with autism love dogs, others find them to be too unpredictable and may prefer a smaller animal like a guinea pig (while some may not bond well with animals at all).
If you’re not sure how your child will react, test out the waters in a therapy setting or even at a friend’s home with pets, before bringing a new animal into your own home. But as Deborah Fein, an autism expert at the University of Connecticut, told the New York Times of the guinea pig study, “There really is no downside to this intervention.”5