A pilot study exploring the benefits of animal-assisted activities (AAA) for psychiatrically hospitalized youth with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), was recently published, reported The Human Animal Bond Research Institute (HABRI), the Children’s Hospital Colorado and the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus.
"Individuals with autism spectrum disorder have difficulties with communication and socialization skills, and often experience difficulties with emotion dysregulation, which can lead to more intensive intervention services such as psychiatric hospitalization," saidMonique Germone, Ph.D., BCBA at University of Colorado and Children’s Hospital Colorado, researcher and lead author. "Psychiatric hospital environments can be particularly overwhelming and stressful environments for individuals with ASD, and animal-assisted activity is one of the most widely used complementary forms of treatment in hospital settings. We chose to build on existing science that shows children with ASD demonstrate significantly more positive social-communication behaviors when an animal is present."
Dr. Germone, along with study’s principal investigator Robin Gabriels, PsyD, professor of psychiatry at the University of Colorado School of Medicine recruited participants ages 4-17 years old from the inpatient and partial hospitalization unit of a specialized psychiatric unit for pediatric patients with ASD. A crossover study design, participants attended both the experimental (AAA) and control (novel toy) conditions. Both group sessions occurred in a classroom setting and began with quiet play, followed by social skills group and then participants engaging in either the experimental or control condition. The 10-minute experimental sessions included therapy dog-handler teams. The researchers captured behavioral data via video and used the OHAIRE coding system designed to quantify social communication, and interactions with animals and control objects. Categories of social and communication behaviors were coded, including talking, gesturing, looking, touching, showing affection and being prosocial.
Significant differences were observed between the AAA experimental and control conditions with respect to the participants’ interactions with the dog versus the toy. Specifically, results from this study revealed that participants displayed more social and communication behaviors of talking, use of gestures and socially directed eye gaze when engaged in the AAA experimental condition. Also, when participants were engaged in the AAA experimental condition, they displayed a higher rate of positive facial expressions, such as smiling and laughing, and twice the number of positive vocalizations (e.g. "this is fun") compared to the toy control condition.
"The results of this pilot research will help pave the way for the increased deployment of dogs and other animals in the therapeutic treatment of children with autism and other developmental disorders," said Steven Feldman, executive director of HABRI. "HABRI is proud to support this important research on the positive impacts of the human-animal bond in the treatment and care of children with autism."