Animal-Assisted Intervention for Autism

Animal-Assisted Intervention for Autism

Studying the unique interactions between people with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and animals.

What is Autism Spectrum Disorder?

Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is referred to as a spectrum since it reflects a wide variety of symptom severity and intellectual abilities. However, the core symptoms of ASD are challenges in social interactions and restricted, repetitive behaviors and interests [1]. Estimates suggest that 1 in 59 children in the U.S. are affected by ASD [2].

Our Research

The OHAIRE Group is collaborating with the service dog provider Canine Companions for Independence and the Purdue Autism Research Center to evaluate service dogs' effects on children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and their families. With funding from the Human-Animal Bond Research InstituteNestlé Purina, and the Indiana Clinical and Translational Sciences Institute, we are conducting physiological and behavioral assessments to understand how children with autism service dogs differ from those on the waitlist to receive a service dog. We also seek to understand how service dogs may assist caregivers of children with autism and potentially impact their parenting stress and quality of life.

Why Include Animals in Autism Intervention?

Several suggestions support the belief that animals may be valuable in autism intervention for some individuals.

  1. Social Facilitation: Evidence points to a potential 'social facilitation' effect on animals. People may be more likely to engage socially when in the presence of animals [3, 4]. This effect may address the social challenges that people with autism face in their daily lives. For example, studies have found that children with autism interact more socially with their peers in the presence of animals and smile more [5, 6].
  2. Attentional Focus: Animals are often sought for their ability to provide a positive external focus of attention. For example, one study found that children with autism looked longer at the faces of dogs than humans [7]. The presence of animals may be a way to keep a child attentive to the intervention.
  3. Nonjudgmental Companions: Animals are perceived as providing nonjudgmental companionship. This component of the animal-assisted intervention is essential to children with autism, who are sometimes at a higher risk for stress and bullying by their peers, particularly during the school-age years [8, 9].

How Common Are Animals in Autism Intervention?

The idea that animals can benefit children and adults with autism is prevalent, and stories of animals helping people overcome the challenges that come with autism are often reported in the media. One survey estimated that almost 25% of families of children with autism have participated in some form of animal-assisted intervention [10].

Animals are present in the lives of individuals with autism in many ways, from household pets to interventions with varying structures, goals, and animal species. The main types of animal-assisted intervention are animal-assisted activities, animal-assisted therapy, animal-assisted education, and assisting animals [11].

Does Research Support Animal-Assisted Intervention for Autism?

Research is the best way to develop and assess effective and reliable interventions such as animal-assisted intervention. Research can evaluate the outcomes of a specific program and compare multiple methodologies.

Following the public enthusiasm for animal-assisted intervention for autism, many research teams have begun investigating the effects of animals on people with autism. As this field of research is emerging, our research group at the OHAIRE lab conducted two scientific literature reviews and found a growing body of studies on this topic [12, 13].

Our systematic reviews have found that, despite positive results, many early studies investigating the effects of animal-assisted intervention for autism were characterized by a lack of scientific rigor, small sample sizes, poor study designs, or researcher bias [12, 13]. However, recent years have seen an increase in high-quality research on animal-assisted intervention for autism. As rigorous studies are being conducted and their findings shared, animal-assisted intervention for autism is better understood in its benefits and limitations

Autism graph

Figure: The number of scientific studies on animal-assisted intervention for autism has increased over time. 

What Do We Do At the OHAIRE Lab?

At the OHAIRE lab, we aim to conduct and collaborate on high-quality research to understand the effects of animal-assisted intervention for autism. Our commitment to conducting strong scientific research includes developing carefully designed studies, using state-of-the-art protocols and unbiased measurements, and rigorously reporting on our findings in peer-reviewed journals and international conferences.

Methodology: Conducting high-quality research requires using high-quality tools. When evaluating an intervention's effects, questionnaires are primary sources of outcomes. At the OHAIRE lab, we think that while questionnaires are a useful tool to gain personal insight from the family and caretakers of children with autism, other objective measures can reveal a richer, potentially less biased picture of the effect of interventions. Therefore, our research incorporates physiological and behavioral data and questionnaire data. In particular, we have developed a behavior coding tool: The Observation of Human-Animal Interaction for Research (OHAIRE) is designed to capture changes in behavior caused by the intervention. We also investigate animal interaction's physiological mechanisms by assessing the stress response system (e.g., electrodermal activity, salivary cortisol).

Findings: Our research group has investigated the effects of several species and types of interventions for autism, including guinea pigs as classroom pets, therapeutic horseback riding, canine-assisted therapy, and autism service dogs. Example findings include:

  • Animal-assisted activities with guinea pigs positively affected children with autism, including increased smiling and social behaviors [6, 14]. Children with ASD also exhibited a 43% decrease in skin conductance, a measure of physiological activation, when interacting with guinea pigs compared to toys [15].
  • Psychiatrically hospitalized children with ASD displayed more positive emotional facial expressions when interacting with a therapy dog than with toys. Engaging with the therapy dog also resulted in more talking, gestures, and looking at both adults and peers [16].

Frequently Asked Questions

In two systematic literature reviews [12, 13], there have been few studies evaluating the effectiveness of service dogs for autism compared to other forms of animal-assisted intervention. However, ongoing research is working to provide critically-needed assessment of service dogs for both children with autism and their families. To determine if a service dog may be suitable for your family, we recommend speaking to organizations that are experienced in providing service dogs to children with autism.

The effectiveness of dolphin-assisted therapy for autism is not currently supported by scientific evidence [12, 13]. It is argued that the few studies reporting positive effects of dolphin-assisted therapy did not take into account a number of biases. In particular, the results of dolphin therapy may be attributed to simply moving to a new, outdoor, sunny environment [17]. In addition, the benefits of dolphin-assisted therapy are often linked to ultra-high frequency vocalizations. In fact, there is no evidence of the benefits of these vocalizations, and they are rare during dolphin-assisted therapy sessions, typically exposing children to less than 10 seconds of vocalization [18]. Welfare is also an ethical issue to take into account when considering dolphin-assisted therapy. The welfare of both the dolphin and the human must be top priority and is challenging to ensure with wild animals [19]. Nevertheless, one study reported that interaction programs can have positive short-term effects and could be a form of enrichment for captive dolphins [20].

There is not a "cure" for autism but a range of treatments to improve social skills and the quality of life of individuals with autism. Animal-assisted intervention is not recommended as a primary treatment option for autism but rather as a complementary or integrative treatment or enrichment activity. Empirically supported therapies such as Occupational Therapy, Speech Therapy, and Applied Behavior Analysis remain the primary recommended treatment options for autism. For some individuals, animal-assisted intervention may yield positive outcomes such as increased social interaction, communicative behaviors, positive emotions, and motor control.

  1. American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (5th ed.).
  2. Baio, J., Wiggins, L., Christensen, D. L., Maenner, M. J., Daniels, J., Warren, Z., Kurzius-Spencer, M., Zahorodny, W., Robinson Rosenberg, C., White, T., Durkin, M. S., Imm, P., Nikolaou, L., Yeargin-Allsopp, M., Lee, L., Harrington, R., Lopez, M., Fitzgerald, R. T., Hewitt, A., … Dowling, N. F. (2018). Prevalence of autism spectrum disorder among children aged 8 years—Autism and developmental disabilities monitoring network, 11 sites, United States, 2014MMWR Surveillance Summaries67(6), 1.
  3. McNicholas, J., & Collis, G. M. (2000). Dogs as catalysts for social interaction: Robustness of the effectBritish Journal of Psychology91(1), 61-70.
  4. Wood, L., Giles-Corti, B., & Bulsara, M. (2005). The pet connection: Pets as a conduit for social capital? Social Science & Medicine61(6), 1159-1173.
  5. Funahashi, A., Gruebler, A., Aoki, T., Kadone, H., & Suzuki, K. (2013). Brief report: The smiles of a child with autism spectrum disorder during an animal-assisted activity may facilitate social positive behaviors--Quantitative analysis with smile-detecting interface. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders44(3), 685-693.
  6. O'Haire, M.E., McKenzie, S. J., Beck, A. M., & Slaughter, V. (2013). Social behaviors increase in children with autism in the presence of animals compared to toysPLOS ONE8(2), [e57010].
  7. Hutt, C., & Ounsted, C. (1966). The biological significance of gaze aversion with particular reference to the syndrome of infantile autism. Behavioral science, 11(5), 346-356.
  8. Cappadocia, M.C., Weiss, J. A., & Pepler, D. (2012). Bullying experiences among children and youth with autism spectrum disordersJournal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 42(2), 266-277.
  9. Hebron, J., & Humphrey, N. (2013). Exposure to bullying among students with autism spectrum conditions: A multi-informant analysis of risk and protective factorsAutism18(6), 618-630.
  10. Christon, L.M., Mackintosh, V. H., & Myers, B. J. (2010). Use of complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) treatments by parents of children with autism spectrum disordersResearch in Autism Spectrum Disorders, 4(2), 249-259.
  11. International Association of Human-Animal Interaction Organizations. (2014). The IAHAIO definitions for animal assisted intervention and guidelines for wellness of animals involved. [White paper].
  12. O'Haire, M.E., (2013). Animal-assisted intervention for autism spectrum disorder: A systematic literature reviewJournal of Autism and Developmental Disorders43(7), 1606-1622.
  13. O’Haire, M. E. (2017). Research on animal-assisted intervention and autism spectrum disorder, 2012–2015Applied Developmental Science21(3), 200-216.
  14. O'Haire, M.E., McKenzie, S. J., McCune, S., & Slaughter, V. (2014). Effects of classroom animal-assisted activities on social functioning in children with autism spectrum disorderJournal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine, 20(3), 162-168.
  15. O'Haire, M. E., McKenzie, S. J., Beck, A. M., & Slaughter, V. (2015). Animals may act as social buffers: Skin conductance arousal in children with autism spectrum disorder in a social context. Developmental Psychobiology57(5), 584-595.
  16. Germone, M. M., Gabriels, R. L., Guérin, N. A., Pan, Z., Banks, T., & O’Haire, M. E. (2019). Animal-assisted activity improves social behaviors in psychiatrically hospitalized youth with autismAutism23(7), 1740-1751.
  17. Marino, L., & Lilienfeld, S. O. (2007). Dolphin-assisted therapy: More flawed data and more flawed conclusionsAnthrozoös: A multidisciplinary journal of the interactions of people & animals, 20(3), 239-249.
  18. Brensing, K., Linke, K., & Todt, D. (2003). Can dolphins heal by ultrasound? Journal of Theoretical Biology, 225(1), 99-105.
  19. Iannuzzi, D., & Rowan, A. N. (1991). Ethical issues in animal-assisted therapy programsAnthrozoös: A multidisciplinary journal of the interactions of people & animals, 4(3), 154-163.

Miller, L. J., Mellen, J. D., Greer, T. F., & Kuczaj, S. A. (2011). The effects of education programmes on Atlantic bottlenose dolphin (Tursiops truncatus) behaviourAnimal Welfare, 20(2), 159-172.