Animals Enhance Social Interaction for Children with Autism / AnneMS Photography

Scientists at the University of Queensland, Australia, have found that “the presence of an animal can significantly increase positive social behaviors in children with autism spectrum disorders (ASD)”. Their recent study compared how 5-13 children on the spectrum interacted with adults and neurotypical peers in the presence of two guinea pigs compared to toys. In the presence of guinea pigs as opposed to toys, the ASD children showed increased social behaviors such as being more talkative, looking at faces, and making physical contact. They were also more receptive to social advances demonstrating an increase in smiling and laughing. Concomitantly observed was a reduction in frowning, whining, and crying. On the basis of their findings, this study recommends that animals be used more in classroom and therapeutic settings to the promote social interaction for children with autism. 

This is a study after my own heart. It leads me to wonder what would happen in various play therapy settings that are toy-centric if an animal was introduced to the mix. Certainly, a classroom pet that could be held at given times by individual children would be extremely beneficial in a self-contained or inclusion setting, and could even be written into an IEP. And hopefully , this scientific affirmation of the power of animals to soothe and relax a child with autism will also lead to more service animals being allowed in the classroom. 

As noted previously on this site, the battle for
autism service dogs in the schools rages on. As of now the IDEA (Individuals with Disabilities Education Act) is silent on the subject, and from that void a wide range of standards emerge, typically coming down of the side of schools opposing the perceived inconvenience of a service animal in their midst. Parents frequently have to hire lawyers to fight for their child’s rights to have a service dog at school. 

Sometimes, the verdicts have been against parents because their child has a one-to-one human being to aid them already. No offense intended to aides, but a service dog is the child’s around-the-clock companion who renders unconditional love, never chides, scolds, or makes demands. Plus, having a dog is cool and attracts enthusiastic classmates. In the wake of massive “Sequester” cuts, special education aides are on the chopping block, which leads me to wonder how this will affect the service dog issue. 

It would be nice if there’s some silver lining to the impending budgetary doom.

About the Author
Susan Moffitt