Research News Flash
Anyone who spends time around animals can describe the numerous and varied benefits perceived from the human-animal bond. Ranging from decreased loneliness and depression to reduced blood pressure and anxiety, the anecdotal support for interaction with animals is widespread. Given that animals offer non-judgmental comfort, many have suggested their use in interventions for individuals who are socially isolated; one such group is individuals with autism who often display behaviors of social aversion.
The purpose of this review paper was to move beyond the anecdotal reported benefits of animal-assisted interventions (AAI) for individuals with autism and present a comprehensive overview of empirical research. Articles included in the review were English peer-reviewed journal articles, which implemented an intervention that intentionally incorporated a live animal, and reported results for participants with a diagnosis on the autism spectrum. Meeting these criteria and the study selection process were 14 articles. The most common animals used were dogs and horses. The majority (n = 9) of the intervention studies were conducted one-on-one (participant, animal, interventionist); three were conducted in a group setting; the remaining two were based around service animals.
Across studies, there was no standard AAI being used and the training of the interventionists varied widely. The majority of the programs were implemented over a period of three months, with weekly sessions ranging from 15 to 60 minutes. All studies focused on children or adolescents (aged three to 17 years), but sample sizes varied greatly. The wide variety of outcome measures included quantitative and qualitative observation, surveys, open-ended interviews, and physiological data. Although the study designs varied widely (animals, settings, activities, durations, disciplines, outcomes), the results of this review suggest proof of concept for the use of AAI in psychosocial interventions for youth on the autism spectrum. Additionally, more rigorous research is needed to fully examine the use of AAI for individuals with ASD, and the potential benefits of AAI in increasing social interaction and communication and reducing autistic severity, associated problem behaviors, and stress.
O'Haire, M. E. (2013). Animal-assisted intervention for autism spectrum disorder: a systematic literature review. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 43(7), 1606-1622.