Study Finds Animal Assisted Therapy (AAT) Benefits People With Autism: The Human-Animal Bond

Ms. Maitree Maheshwari, Clinical Psychologist with Team Autism Connect Association

In an article ‘‘Finding My Son at the Zoo,’’ Thomas Fields-Meyer (2007) writes about regularly visiting the Los Angeles zoo with his son Ezra, who is diagnosed with autism. Watching a new side of his son come to life in the presence of animals, Fields-Meyer describes the transformation, “a boy who is ordinarily a hurricane of motion becomes calm, happy, and an engaged 11-year-old who is able to carry a conversation while watching the animals in the zoo.”

Research states, AAT as a promising adjunct to treatment work with many different populations, including individuals diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder.

Animal-Assisted Therapy (AAT) is characterized by the inclusion of a certified therapy animal in the process of achieving an intervention objective formulated from the therapeutic milieu. The commonly used animals for the therapy are trained dogs, cats, horses, dolphins, etc.


AAT is based on the belief in a natural tendency for relationships to form between animals and humans: the human-animal bond. Animals are accepting, non-threatening and non-judgmental, making it easier for people to open up. AAT literature is replete with testaments and qualitative reports regarding the immediate, caring bonds forged between children and animals in therapeutic settings and imply that it is this attachment that fosters the therapeutic gains made in such cases.

nimal-assisted therapy takes place in a variety of settings. This form of treatment can take place individually or in groups, and is led by a qualified therapist or professional with specialized expertise. Much more than simply spending time with an animal, animal-assisted therapy involves specific therapeutic goals, strategies and outcomes measures. Therapeutic experiences can include walking, brushing, petting and caring for an animal, as well as processing the experience of trying to achieve a given task.

Autism Spectrum Disorder and AAT:

A variety of studies support the concept that animals can be particularly effective with children who have ASD. Initial literature suggests that dogs may help overcome some of the obstacles associated with a child with ASD. Dogs have a unique aptitude for offering non-judgmental and unconditional positive regard to people and are capable of certain aspects of “emotional support” within the context of AAT.

Research has also shown that while children with ASD may not seek peer relationships, they do express an interest in interacting with animals. It is by first attaching to, trusting, observing, and establishing bonds with the animal that these children can then extend these bonds and progress into a relationship with another human. Therapeutic horseback riding is popular to use with individuals along the autistic spectrum.

A study by Ward et al, investigated the social and sensory benefits that therapeutic horseback riding could have on children with ASD. The study showed positive effects on participants’ abilities to communicate and a reduction in the severity of their ASD. Grandgeorge et al suggested that introduction of a therapy dog could be particularly effective for improving pro-social behavior in children with ASD.

The presence of a dog brings about a greater use of language, social interactions, and decreased problematic behaviors in children with autism. Such children often suffer from difficulty in focusing, responding to sensory stimuli, and communicating with others, all of which have been shown to improve after the use of AAT.

In a research trial by Viau et al, after the introduction of a dog into families, parents stated that problematic behaviors from their children subsequently decreased. Also, a significant 48% decrease in CAR (cortisol awakening response) levels was observed among the children with ASD. AAT can not only improve the quality of life for those with ASD, but it can also promote the comfort and happiness of the whole family by facilitating interactions.

How it works:

The first step in AAT is the selection of a suitable animal. Before an animal and its handler can participate in AAT, the team has to fulfill certain requirements. This process typically includes

  • a physical examination of the animal to confirm that it’s immunized and free of diseases
  • an obedience training course to ensure proper animal control
  • an instructional course to teach the trainer about interaction with other people
  • an evaluation of the animal’s temperament and behavior with the handler
  • a certification from the sponsoring organization

Once a team of an animal and a handler is approved, animals are assigned for therapy based on a specific person’s needs. The animal’s type, breed, size, age, and natural behavior will determine where it will be most helpful.

Benefits of AAT in Autism Spectrum Disorder:

A gamut of benefits are noted in children with autism like increased attention span, self-confidence, enhanced transferable skills of empathy and relating to others and a better sense of well-being. It helps them to overcome sensory defensiveness and enhances problem-solving skills. Parents report decreased anxiety, increased calmness, reduction in the number of meltdowns or tantrums, dissipated/defused anger, and more manageable bedtime routines.

In this social world, dogs facilitate communication of children with autism by being easily readable intentional agents and supporting children’s own agency and improvisation within and beyond structurally simple social actions: child throwing and dog fetching a ball; walking together, child holding the dog’s leash; giving a hand command (e.g., sit) and the dog responding by sitting. Such activities, seemingly simple, propel the children into contingent social behavior, that they have a difficult time accomplishing with their human communicative partners.

In addition to social/emotional opportunities, therapy dogs seem to be able to support the development of (a) verbal communication skills (b) impulse-control behaviors and (c) caretaking practices that lead to improved understanding of personal responsibility. The therapy dog serves to normalize the social environment for a child with autism who might otherwise be ignored or treated awkwardly.

Dolphin assisted therapy shows short and long-term improvements in the children’s speech production and memory. The therapy work with dolphins improves the processing of children with cognitive disabilities. Being in the water alone offers benefits for an individual in the areas of sensory input and exercise.

Interaction with animals can help children with autism become more physically developed and improve their strength, coordination, and physical abilities. More importantly, many people derive much joy from their relationship with animals, which can help autistic children have a better sense of well-being and more self-confidence.

In addition, the Canadian researchers noted that some of the children with ASD gained certain skills through their interaction with the dog, like learning to match their pace to the dog’s (and the family’s) while out walking, or how to throw a ball, or how to pet the dog with the correct amount of pressure.

Lastly, a dog can help engage a child in motor skill activities. After a dog is introduced to a family, there is increased motivation for a child with autism to learn new skills. According to a study by Berry et al, introducing a dog to children with ASD can result in a reduction of stress, anxiety, and irritation and can also promote a more relaxed environment for those children.

Risks of AAT:

Some of the biggest risks of AAT involve safety and sanitation. People who are allergic to animal dander may have reactions during AAT. While uncommon, human injury can occur when unsuitable animals are used. Animals may also suffer injury or abuse when handled inappropriately. In some cases, people may become possessive of the animals helping them and be reluctant to give them up after a session. This can result in low self-esteem and depression.

There exists a long drawn-out history chronicling professional accounts of perceived psycho-physiological and psychosocial benefits when animals have been utilized in therapeutic environments. The literature is inundated with accounts reporting successes with Animal Assisted Therapy (AAT) and the number of professionals, programs and organizations that have embraced AAT continues to rise.

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