Autism and Animal-Assisted Therapy

Explore how autism and animal-assisted therapy intersect, offering healing, joy and newfound confidence.

steven zauderer
Steven Zauderer
June 6, 2024
9 min read
min read

Animal-Assisted Therapy for Autism

When exploring therapeutic strategies for autism, the incorporation of animal-assisted therapy is gaining recognition for its potential benefits. The unique bond between humans and animals can offer a sense of comfort and companionship, facilitating a variety of beneficial outcomes.

Benefits of Animal Therapy

Animal therapy has been shown to have a positive impact on individuals with autism. For instance, it can help them focus their attention more effectively. A study found that children with autism tended to look at dogs' faces longer than humans' faces, indicating a developed interest and focus. This interaction can also stimulate physical fitness, strength, and coordination.

Furthermore, interaction with animals has been observed to increase social engagement and communication among neurodivergent individuals. It promotes emotional and intellectual openness, which could potentially lead to improved communication skills. In many cases, individuals with autism have been observed to smile more when around animals, suggesting a boost in their emotional well-being [2].

Types of Therapy Animals

There are various types of animals used in therapy for individuals with autism, each offering unique benefits.

Service animals, particularly dogs, are professionally trained to meet the specific needs of their owners. They provide a secure companion for individuals with autism in various public settings, helping to curb meltdowns, aggression, self-harming tendencies, and even offering protection for those who might wander into danger. Service dogs are allowed in almost any public setting and studies point to their efficacy for autistic children or adults. They can help autistic children navigate physical spaces, regulate emotions, avoid negative interactions, and communicate with and control the dog [2].

Therapy animals, including dogs, are often used in healthcare facilities like hospitals. They provide comfort during medical procedures and therapy sessions, which promotes emotional and intellectual openness and communication.

Family pets also play a significant role in providing companionship, fostering practical skills, responsibility, and empathy for individuals with autism.

Type of Animal Role
Service Dogs Providing security in public settings, helping to curb meltdowns, aggression, and self-harm, offering protection
Therapy Animals (e.g., dogs) Offering comfort during medical procedures, promoting emotional and intellectual openness and communication
Family Pets Providing companionship, fostering practical skills, responsibility, and empathy

Taking into account the benefits and the different types of therapy animals, it is evident that animal-assisted therapy can play a significant role in supporting individuals with autism. These therapy animals can provide a sense of stability, companionship, and emotional regulation, making them an integral part of therapeutic strategies for autism.

Service Animals for Individuals with Autism

Service animals, particularly dogs, play a significant role in autism and animal-assisted therapy. Trained to meet the unique needs of individuals with autism, these animals offer invaluable support in various situations.

Role of Service Dogs

Service dogs are often used in therapeutic settings due to their social and affectionate nature, making them ideal companions for children with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). These trained therapy dogs can help children self-soothe, improve communication, and attention, leading to better engagement and interaction during therapy sessions.

Dependent on the circumstances, service dogs can also assist autistic children in navigating physical space, regulating emotions, avoiding negative interactions, and learning how to communicate with and control the dog. This versatile role of service dogs highlights their importance in the realm of autism therapy [2].

Support in Public Settings

Public settings can often be overwhelming for individuals with autism, causing anxiety and stress. Service dogs provide a sense of security and companionship in these situations, helping to curb meltdowns, aggression, self-harm, and even offering protection for those who might wander off into danger.

Importantly, service dogs are allowed in almost any public setting, providing constant support to individuals with autism. This includes places like schools, shopping centers, and parks, making everyday tasks and activities more manageable and less stressful.

With the help of service dogs, individuals with autism can navigate public settings more comfortably and confidently, thereby improving their overall quality of life. The integration of service animals into autism therapy underscores the growing recognition of the benefits of animal-assisted therapy for autism.

Emotional Support Animals for Autism

Emotional support animals play a pivotal role in assisting individuals with autism. These animals, typically pets, provide comfort, companionship, and aid in navigating stressful situations, thereby significantly contributing to the overall well-being of the individual.

Benefits of Emotional Support Animals

Emotional support animals offer numerous benefits for individuals with autism. Research shows that the presence of a pet fosters shared interactions such as conversations and smiles, promoting prosocial behaviors among individuals on the autism spectrum. This unique social bond provides a sense of companionship and comfort that cannot be achieved through other means.

In addition to enhancing social engagement, emotional support animals also contribute to the physical well-being of individuals with autism. Animal-Assisted Therapy (AAT) has been proven to improve fine motor skills, strengthen core stability, enhance body coordination, and elevate emotional well-being.

Furthermore, individuals often perceive their pets as warm, compassionate, and caring, which helps to reduce stress under chronic psychological pressure. This interaction elevates comfort levels, trust, and decreases stress-related responses in the body, ultimately contributing to the effectiveness of the therapy.

Navigating Stressful Situations

Emotional support animals aid individuals with autism in dealing with stressful situations like travel, school, and medical appointments. The presence of a familiar and comforting companion can make these experiences more manageable and less anxiety-inducing.

In fact, the most consistent finding in Animal-Assisted Interventions (AAI) for autism is increased social interaction, identified in 22 studies by 19 research teams across 14 countries. Other areas of potential promise requiring further investigation include positive emotions, stress reduction, and language/communication improvements.

Emotional support animals, through their unconditional love and companionship, can significantly enhance the lives of individuals with autism. By offering emotional support, fostering social interaction, and aiding in navigating stressful situations, these animals play an invaluable role in autism and animal-assisted therapy.

Challenges and Considerations

While animal-assisted therapy holds promise for children with autism, there are challenges and considerations that need to be addressed. These include managing the needs of both children and animals, and addressing the gaps in research around this form of therapy.

Managing Needs of Children and Animals

Introducing animals into a therapeutic setting requires careful management of the needs of both the child with autism and the animal. For example, some parents have found it challenging to simultaneously meet the needs of children with autism and dogs, even when the dogs are highly trained. Adult service dog owners need to be capable of directing and guiding their dogs, a task that may not be feasible for every individual on the autism spectrum.

It is crucial to consider the child's comfort level and ability to interact with the animal, as well as the animal's training, temperament, and ability to interact with the child. Both the child and the animal should be closely monitored to ensure that they are benefiting from the interaction and that neither is experiencing undue stress or discomfort.

Research Gaps in Animal Therapy

While there have been positive outcomes observed in the effectiveness of animal-assisted therapy (AAT) for children and adolescents with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), the implementation of AAT should be approached with caution. This caution is due to the lack of standardized frameworks resulting from heterogeneity within intervention protocols and outcome measures.

More research is needed to determine which individuals with autism will benefit the most from animal therapy, as there are various types and severities of issues associated with individual ASDs. Larger and more defined studies are required to assess the outcomes of animal therapy effectively [1].

Researchers have suggested that further investigation using consistent and rigorous methodologies is necessary to identify conditions under which animal-assisted interventions may be most helpful for children with ASD [6].

Furthermore, integrating animals into therapeutic programming, known as Animal-Assisted Intervention (AAI), has shown a critical need for scientific evaluation and the development of evidence-based best practices for autism spectrum disorder. The practice of AAI for autism is increasing, and there is a growing momentum in research and clinical practice related to the inclusion of animals in intervention services.

In conclusion, while animal-assisted therapy can offer unique benefits for children with autism, it is important to carefully consider the needs of both the child and the animal, and to approach this form of therapy with an understanding of its current limitations and the need for further research.

Effectiveness of Animal Therapy

As the practice of Animal-Assisted Intervention (AAI) for autism increases, there is growing momentum in research and clinical practice related to the inclusion of animals in intervention services. The effectiveness of animal therapy lies in its potential to enhance social engagement, communication, emotional well-being, and confidence in individuals with autism.

Social Engagement and Communication

Animal therapy has demonstrated significant effectiveness in fostering social engagement and communication in children with autism. Research suggests that children with autism interact and engage more in the presence of a therapy animal, leading to better communication skills and prosocial behaviors. Engaging with a therapy animal has been validated to decrease autistic traits in children.

A systematic literature review conducted on AAI for autism revealed that AAI programs generally include one animal per participant with a total contact time of approximately 10 hours over the course of 8 to 12 weeks. Increased social interaction was the most commonly reported outcome, significant across 22 studies.

The most consistent finding in AAI for autism was increased social interaction, identified in 22 studies by 19 research teams across 14 countries. These results underscore the potential of animal therapy as a beneficial tool for improving social interactions and communication among individuals with autism.

Emotional Well-Being and Confidence

In addition to enhancing social engagement and communication, animal therapy has also been shown to improve emotional well-being and confidence in individuals with autism. The therapy animals have a calming effect on children, aiding in keeping them attentive during interventions and resulting in a decrease in autistic traits.

Moreover, the research also highlights other areas of potential promise requiring further investigation, including positive emotions, stress reduction, and language/communication improvements. These areas underscore the potential of animal therapy for aiding in the emotional well-being and fostering confidence among individuals with autism [4].

In conclusion, the effectiveness of animal therapy in autism treatment is supported by a growing body of research. However, there is a critical need for further scientific evaluation and the development of evidence-based best practices for autism spectrum disorder. The promising findings from multiple studies across various countries showcase the potential of animal therapy as a beneficial intervention for individuals with autism.

Unique Forms of Animal Therapy

While dogs and cats are the most common therapy animals, other forms of animal-assisted therapy exist that cater to a variety of needs and preferences. One such unique form of therapy is hippotherapy, which involves interaction with horses.

Hippotherapy with Horses

Hippotherapy, a unique form of animal therapy, involves tasks like riding and taking care of horses. It has been shown to support physical, social, and emotional skills in individuals with autism. While not studied as intensively as other forms of animal therapy, horseback riding can have many physical and social benefits.

Interacting with horses requires communication, both verbal and non-verbal, which can help children with autism improve their social skills. The physical act of riding a horse also helps in enhancing motor skills and coordination, contributing to the overall physical development of the child.

Equine-Assisted Therapy Success

Equine-assisted therapy (EAT) has gained recognition for its effectiveness in helping children with autism spectrum disorders (ASD). Much like hippotherapy, EAT involves interaction with horses and has been found to be beneficial emotionally and socially for children with ASD.

As per a study published by NCBI, horseback riding therapy helps improve mood, build self-confidence, develop motor skills, and enhance social and communication skills in children with ASD. This form of therapy also provides children with a sense of achievement, contributing to their emotional well-being.

While each child is unique and may respond differently to the various forms of therapy, the success of EAT in improving the emotional and social aspects of children with ASD is indeed promising. This unique form of animal therapy offers another avenue of support for children with autism, contributing to their journey towards healing and development.

As the field of autism and animal-assisted therapy continues to evolve, further research will undoubtedly bring more insights into the unique benefits and success of therapies like hippotherapy and equine-assisted therapy.








steven zauderer

CEO of CrossRiverTherapy - a national ABA therapy company based in the USA.

Table of Contents