Parents of children on the autistic spectrum have long noted benefits of spending time with animals. Anecdotal evidence is slowing being replaced by real studies, that are being funded to a greater extent than ever in the past. Thus, there is a growing body of research that has emerged providing evidence of those benefits. Animal-assisted interventions (AAI) seems to result in increased social interaction and decreased anxiety, two of the main issues seen with autistic children. People with other disabilities are noted to benefit from AAI as well. Without this intervention, a vicious cycle can result, where self-isolation can make them the target of bullies, and even result in emotional isolation from their loved ones and family.
Key is the improved quality of the research in the field of study that is growing, known as anthropology. It studies the human-animal interaction and benefits thereof. The National Institute of health, and the Waltham Centre for Pet Nutrition are two major funders of such research. The ability to quantify results is key, and the earlier in childhood development, the better.
Temple Grandin, well know for her animal behavior expertise, has a perfect perspective, being that she herself is on the autism spectrum. She cites that the affinity between animals and these children is based on their mutual tendency to be visual thinkers, in contrast to thinking in words. Farm animals such as goats, sheep, horses and dogs have all been credited with positive results in interventional studies.
But some of the most impactful research studies have been performed with Australian children and guinea pigs. It established that the children talked to people more, made eye contact, and even touched other people more, when they interacted with guinea pigs (in contrast to the group that played with toys). They also laughed and smiled more. A separate Australian study with guinea pigs measured neurological arousal levels, comparing autistic children to neurotypical children. The autistic children’s anxiety dropped after playing with the guinea pigs, made them happier, and effectively acted as “social buffers” between both groups of children.
There are several examples of spectrum children becoming verbal with the animals, when they were mainly non-verbal prior. Those in the field admit that there is much work to be done, but the interest and funding in the research is promising.
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