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 is used for a wide range of medical, developmental and emotional disorders, including autism.
What is animal-assisted therapy used for?
For autistic children, animal-assisted therapy is used to help children learn empathy, communication and social skills. It can also be used to help autistic children manage their behaviour. There’s no evidence that animal assisted therapy can help 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?
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.
Costs of an animal-assisted therapy session vary, but you can expect to pay around $145-$165 per session.
You can contact the NDIS to find out whether you can include the cost of animal-assisted therapy in children’s NDIS plans.
Does animal-assisted therapy work?
Some low-quality studies have found that animals can help autistic people develop sensory and social skills, and manage problem behaviour and stress. But 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.
Parent education, training, support and involvement
If your child is having animal-assisted therapy, you’ll need to take your child to therapy sessions.
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, NDIS early childhood early intervention (ECEI) coordinator or NDIS local area coordinator (LAC), if you have one.
There are many therapies for autism. They range from those based on behaviour and development to those based on medicine or alternative therapy. Our article on types of interventions for autistic children takes you through the main therapies, so you can better understand your child’s options.