Animals and Autism: A Ray Of Hope

It’s common knowledge that the presence of an animal helps calm us; it’s scientifically proven to help lower blood pressure and reduce stress.  But now animals are being used to assist children with autism spectrum disorder and other learning impairments.

A recent study out of Queensland, Australia found that children between the ages of five and thirteen responded better to interaction with their peers when an animal was present vs. when only toys were present.   The results showed that when the children with autism spectrum disorder were in a room with two guinea pigs, the children talked more, made more physical contact, and looked at the faces of other individuals more often than when the animals were absent.  What’s more is that the children showed a reduced instance of crying, frowning, and whining when the animals were in the room as well.

This study goes to show that animals may help children with autism spectrum disorder interact positively with teachers, therapists, and friends. 

A new study by the University of Montreal has shown that when children with autism spend time with specially trained service dogs, their stress levels are reduced.  42 children were involved in the study, and a doctor took saliva samples from the children before, during, and after interaction with a dog.  The test results showed an impressive drop in the stress hormone cortisol during and after interaction with the animal. 

These studies are just glancing the surface of what may be a great tool to help children with disabilities and autism spectrum disorder.  There are currently many animal therapies available for children, including horse therapy, dolphin therapy, and dog therapy; but many are cost-prohibitive.  Parents have been taking the battle to court to allow service dogs to be made available to children with autism and other learning disabilities. 

Many parents who adopted a pet for their special needs child have reported positive changes in the child’s behavior.  Children seem to take an active role in the care and loving of their pet.  This, in turn, lets them easily bond with the animal, showing them a prime example of how to appropriately interact with others.  One such story is the Vacarro family in Manhattan.  They adopted a service dog named Chad for their 11 year old son, Milo.  Milo suffered temper tantrums in public, along with fleeing from social situations.  His mother said that within a week she noticed a huge difference in Milo.  She said, “More and more changes have happened over the months as their bond has grown. He’s much calmer. He can concentrate for much longer periods of time. It’s almost like a cloud has lifted.”  His doctor also reported similar results, saying she not only saw a prominent difference in Milo’s behavior, but noticed that “He started to give me narratives in a way he never did,” noting that many of those narratives centered on Chad.

There is even a foundation to help families find service dogs for their autistic children – the Autism Service Dogs of America. 

While science and federal regulations are slowly catching on to the benefits a service animal has on autistic children, there’s no arguing the fact that animals can help children form bonds, learn responsibility, and give their owners a lifetime of love.



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