What is animal-assisted therapy?
In animal-assisted therapy, a trained therapist uses animals as part of a therapy plan. For example, the therapist might use a therapy dog to help a child learn communication skills. The therapy might involve encouraging the child to talk to the dog.
Animal-assisted therapy is different from using animals to give comfort and affection to people in hospital. It’s also different from using service, assistance or therapy animals. These animals live with families and are trained to do things like alert the family to early signs of seizures, stop a child from wandering, or interrupt repetitive behaviour.
Who is animal-assisted therapy for?
Animal-assisted therapy can be used for people with a wide range of medical, developmental and emotional disorders, including autistic people.
What is animal-assisted therapy used for?
Supporters of animal-assisted therapy say it can help autistic children learn empathy, communication and social skills. There’s no evidence that animal-assisted therapy can change the characteristics of autism.
Where does animal-assisted therapy come from?
The first formal therapeutic work and research into animal-assisted therapy was done in 1961 by child psychologist Dr Boris Levinson. It has been gaining popularity since the late 1990s.
What is the idea behind animal-assisted therapy for autistic children?
Animal-assisted therapy comes from studies of human-animal interaction and human-animal bonding. This field looks at the relationship between animals and humans. The theory is that animals are a source of calming, non-judgmental support and can help with communication and social interaction.
For example, an autistic child might feel more comfortable interacting and communicating with a dog. The child might then learn how to apply these social and communication skills in family and other relationships.
What does animal-assisted therapy involve?
Animal-assisted therapy usually involves a series of sessions with a therapist and animal. Children can do the sessions at home or school or in a clinic. They can do the sessions in a group or individually.
Animal-assisted therapy most often involves dogs. But it can also involve horses, guinea pigs, cats, ferrets, birds, farm animals and zoo animals.
Depending on an individual child’s needs, the therapy usually involves 6-12 sessions.
Does animal-assisted therapy help autistic children?
Some low-quality studies have found that animals might help autistic people develop sensory, social skills and early communication skills. Animals might also help people manage problem behaviour and stress. More high-quality research is needed to find out whether animal-assisted therapy is effective.
Who practises animal-assisted therapy?
Psychologists, speech pathologists, occupational therapists and other professionals use animals, particularly dogs. These professionals might have their own animals, or they might work as a team with animals and their handlers.
Where can you find a practitioner?
Your local autism association can help you find an animal-assisted therapist.
If you’re interested in animal-assisted therapy for your child, it’s a good idea to talk about it with your GP or one of the other professionals working with your child. You could also talk about it with your NDIA planner, early childhood partner or local area coordinator (LAC), if you have one.
Parent education, training, support and involvement
If your child is having animal-assisted therapy, you’ll need to take your child to therapy sessions.
Costs of an animal-assisted therapy session vary, but you can expect to pay $145-$165 per session.
Therapies and supports for autistic children range from behaviour therapies and developmental approaches to medicines and alternative therapies. When you understand the main types of therapies and supports for autistic children, it’ll be easier to work out the approach that will best suit your child.