By Toneya Ashby, Psychologist
There is a growing body of research exploring the positive impact of dogs (and indeed a variety of other domestic animals) on individuals on the Autism Spectrum. Many individuals on the Autism Spectrum will describe or be observed to possess a natural affinity with animals. Animals, and particularly dogs, provide a multitude of benefits to someone with ASD. They come with a present-focused, non-judgemental, and simplified way of communicating and relating to the world around them; they differ vastly from their nuanced and complex human counterparts, who are so often a source of confusion and anxiety for someone with ASD.
How can dogs be involved or integrated more into the life of someone on the Autism Spectrum?
In some cases, this occurs through a therapy dog – much like our Lulu at Minds & Hearts. Therapy dogs live with their owner, who in most cases is an allied health professional. They attend the workplace with their owner and as a team, they provide Animal Assisted Therapy to a variety of clients. Dogs that are certified therapy dogs do not automatically gain Public Access rights.
In other cases, this occurs when an individual acquires a dog as an emotional support or companion dog. These dogs are not required to undergo any specific training or assessment but provide an informal emotional and social support to an individual on the Autism Spectrum. These dogs live in the family home as a regular pet, and do not have Public Access rights.
Finally, an individual on the Autism Spectrum can acquire their own assistance or service dog. A service dog undergoes rigorous training and assessment through a service provider and is homed permanently with the family – though has been specifically trained to meet the needs of the individual on the Autism Spectrum. Dogs are carefully chosen and matched to each individual. Most assistance or service dogs are trained to work with children and have Public Access rights, allowing them to accompany the child wherever they may go.
What are some of the benefits?
- Stress reduction
- Research demonstrates that a dog’s presence reduces stress, anxiety and irritation for an individual on the Autism Spectrum (Berry et al, 2013) promoting a more relaxed environment.
- Cortisol levels (the hormone most closely associated with life stress) was found to decrease by 48% in children with ASD after a dog was introduced to the family (Viau et al, 2010).
- Positive social interactions
- A study by Grandgeorge et al (2012) suggested that newly introducing a therapy dog into the family resulted in an increase in prosocial behaviours from a child on the Autism Spectrum (compared to families who either did not own a dog or already owned a dog, who showed no change in prosocial behaviours).
- Assistance or service dogs provide an individual with a reason to communicate with others and something familiar to talk about. They can increase their confidence in engaging with others and decrease their anxiety in social situations.
- Behaviour disruption
- Some assistance or service dogs for ASD can be trained to touch or nudge a child to disrupt repetitive or destructive behaviours. They are also trained to snuggle in close to the child when the child is in distress, to help prevent a meltdown from occurring.
- Increase in safety
- Some assistance or service dogs for ASD are taught tracking, allowing them to quickly find their child using their sense of smell should the child run away. They also often wear harnesses attached to their service coats, which can prevent running away by having the child “tethered” to their dog via the handle. The dog is trained to remain calm and anchored even in loud noises or potentially distressing situations.
- Increase in relaxation and possible benefits to sleep
- Children with a companion dog feel less pressure from their surroundings and are less anxious. This lends itself to improved sleeping habits and a better quality of sleep, particularly for those children whose dog sleeps in their room.
Berry, A., Borgi M., Francia, N., Alleva, E., & Cirulli, F. (2013). Use of assistance and therapy dogs for children with autism spectrum disorders: A critical review of the current evidence. Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine, 19(2), pp. 73-80.
Viau, R., Arsenault-Lapierre, G., Fecteau, S., Champagne, N., Walker, C.D., & Lupien, S. (2010). Effect of service dogs on salivary cortisol secretion in autistic children. Psychoneuroendocrinology, 35(8), pp. 1187-1193.
Grandgeorge, M., Tordjman, S., Lazartigues, A., Lemmonier, E., Deleau, M., & Hausberger, M. (2012). Does pet arrival trigger prosocial behaviours in individuals with autism? PLOS One, 7(8).