Animals and Kids with Autism
The story of Nick and Stitch
Nick is 15 years old and has high functioning autism, which has caused him difficulty in connecting with peers. As a young child, Nick had delayed social skills and often spoke using repetitive language (referred to as echolalia). And for a long time, Nick’s parents struggled to help their son bond with others, calmly handle personal interactions and speak clearly and calmly when spoken to. Fortunately, much of that changed when Stitch came into Nick’s life.
Stitch is a German shepherd who became Nick’s service dog when he was 7 years old. Once Nick had Stitch alongside him, communicating with others became easier. People came up to Nick, wanting to learn more about his dog, and this gave him opportunities to practice his social skills. Nick’s parents and therapists worked on a scripted response he could provide when asked about Stitch. Over time, speaking to others became more comfortable for Nick, as he had his buddy Stitch by his side.
Animal Assisted Therapy
Animal Assisted Therapy (AAT) has proven to be incredibly beneficial for children with autism. According to AnimalAssistedTherapyPrograms.org, an animal in session can help a child with emotional awareness, behavioral management skills, communication skills, gross and fine motor skills, care-taking responsibilities, assertiveness and appropriate social skills—many of the benefits seen by Nick’s parents as he began working with Stitch. For example, proper AAT sets up goals and effective intervention methods as a means for achieving those goals. A goal might be for the child to make a choice between two things. The animal-related intervention could include the child’s choosing which toy or treat to give to the animal or what direction to go with the animal. Another goal for a child with autism could be for him to learn about taking turns. AAT would help by having the child play fetch with the dog.
Other benefits of AAT include improving impulse control and teaching empathy, which are often areas of difficulty for children with autism. The following are quotes gathered from a Facebook support group for families with children on the spectrum:
Ruth: “My daughter has become a bird and squirrel ‘whisperer.' She must stay very quiet to get them to approach her. Thankfully, we live in an area with many parks and backyard birds and squirrels.”
Hope: “Horses relax and calm my son. They help with empathy, responsibility, confidence and self-esteem.”
Diana: “My guy had an obsession with chickens forever. The chickens helped with his impulse control. He didn't want to scare them.”
Dogs: A Child with Autism’s Best Friend
Although success with all types of animals has been reported, the most common animal-assisted therapy is with dogs. “Children with autism may especially benefit from interacting with dogs, which can provide unconditional, nonjudgmental love and companionship,” says Dr. Gretchen Carlisle, a fellow with the Research Center for Human-Animal Interaction at the University of Missouri College of Veterinary Medicine. There is a caution. “For families of children with autism, getting a dog should be a decision that’s taken very seriously,” Carlisle says. “For example, a child who is easily agitated or has sensitivities to noise may have great difficulty with an extremely active dog or one that tends to bark.” (AutismSpeaks.org)
Trainers often have different theories on training service dogs for children with autism. Some trainers will match children with a dog after the dog is fully trained. Nick’s trainer instead matched him with a puppy that was brought home and trained with assistance from a team of trainers. The theory behind this type of training is that the dog and child build a very tight bond. Also, children with autism can have behaviors that a puppy would have an easier time adjusting to. “We trained one time per week for about two years. This training also served as an opportunity for Nick to be a part of a community that gave him socialization and a sense of belonging,” Nick’s mom, Sarah, explains. “It was not without difficulty but was definitely one of the best decisions we have ever made. Nick and Stitch have an amazing bond that we will be forever grateful for.” (Story of Nick and Stitch courtesy of Sarah Lapinski, Nick’s mother)
Whether the animal is a dog, chicken or horse, evidence appears solid that working with animals as a form of therapy is incredibly beneficial to children on the autism spectrum. Animals help with compassion, patience, impulse control and responsibility. And dogs, specifically, can become loyal friends.
1. Which of the following animals can benefit a child with autism if used in therapy?
D. All of the above
2. Animal Assisted Therapy helps with
B. impulse control
C. Both A and B
D. Neither A nor B
3. When should a child be assigned to a dog for therapy?
A. Before the dog turns 1
B. Only after the dog is fully trained
C. Only after the child turns 5 years old
D. There are different theories; decision is made by parents and
4. Where can AAT take place?
A. Anywhere, even a public setting, like a park
B. Only in a center for children with autism
C. Only at home
D. Only at animal training centers
5. Which of the following is NOT a skill learned through AAT?
A. Gross and fine motor skills
B. Learning to separate and face situations alone
D. Taking turns
Olathe mom Karen Johnson has three children, ages 6, 4 and 2. She writes at The21stCenturySAHM.com