There may not be a cure for autism spectrum disorder (ASD), but animal therapy for autism is a proven source of support and growth for those on the spectrum. No matter the type or severity of ASD, all forms of therapy can benefit the individual’s emotional, physical, and psychological well-being. What plenty of research has untapped is that animal therapy for autism works and can act as a truly transformative experience.
ABA Centers of Florida understands the universally positive effects of animal therapy for autism. We strive to provide those on the spectrum with all the resources and therapy options they need to reach their full potential. Along with our ABA therapy services, we strongly recommend animal therapy for anyone needing extra support throughout their life journey.
Positive Benefits of Animal Therapy for Autism
Several studies indicate that animal interaction helps neurodivergent individuals engage better with others and develop confidence and independence. In many cases, animal-assisted therapy (AAT) can improve the individual’s communication skills and ability to cope with anxiety and stress. Neurobiological evidence suggests that children on the spectrum may perceive greater social reward from the faces of animals compared to humans, as indicated by more prominent activation in brain regions related to reward and emotional arousal.
Much of this positive effect on social behavior stems from the idea that people on the spectrum have a significantly harder time socializing with others due to social anxiety or bullying and rejection. The presence of an animal then acts as a buffer and positive focus of attention that can change thought processes in a positive light. In turn, you may see a child with autism smiling more when they are near an animal.
Viable Types of Autism Therapy with Animals
Animal-assisted intervention (AAI) is not limited to a single animal; many different companions can uniquely bring forth these positive benefits. However, research shows that mammals are better therapeutic animals than amphibians, birds, fish, or reptiles, though these can still have an impact. ABA Centers of Florida finds that the following list of animal therapies for autism are the most beneficial.
1. Therapy Animals – Therapy animals can be any species brought into a therapeutic setting, medical office, or school, and include birds, cats, dogs, guinea pigs, and horses. Therapy pets can promote communication about needs and feelings, help individuals manage emotions, and even build skills related to playing. These animals are meant to support positive social interactions and are helpful because they can foster healthy emotional and intellectual experiences. Additional benefits include:
- Encouraging social communication
- Improving engagement, responsiveness, and joint attention
- Supporting play skills
- Providing reinforcement and motivation while learning
- Providing a physical outlet with which to regulate
- Reducing emotional anxiety
- Making therapeutic experiences more effective
2. Service Animals – A service animal will almost always be a dog, but other creatures work in rare instances. Typically, the most common breeds chosen for service training include Labradors, golden retrievers, and German shepherds. A service animal can help individuals of any age and helps them navigate physical space, regulate emotions, and avoid negative interactions. Because these critters are highly qualified working animals, they can be expensive. However, there are many nonprofit organizations to aid with funding.
Overall, studies point to the efficacy of service dogs for autistic children or adults. Service dogs are allowed in almost any public setting, as they are encouraged to always be with their handler. Individuals with autism working with a service dog must communicate with and control their companion, meaning they’re not beneficial for all cases.
Depending on the circumstances, here are a few things a service dog might be able to do for a child on the spectrum:
- Recognizing distress and helping soothe the owner
- Preventing self-harming behavior or the possible harming of others
- Reducing anxiety levels by applying pressure or lying across the owner’s lap
- Improving sleep and relaxation
- Protecting the individual if they are likely to run away or step into danger
- Recognizing and alerting others to seizures or other physical symptoms
3. Hippotherapy (Equine Therapy) – Hippotherapy is a unique animal therapy involving riding and caring for horses that can support physical, social, and emotional skills. Additionally, horseback riding can have many physical and social benefits.
Despite not being as popular as other forms of AAT, hippotherapy is still a well-studied technique often covered by insurance. While this therapy won’t be an excellent fit for everyone, those who enjoy the experience can find therapeutic value. Additional benefits include:
- Building physical strength and muscle tone through horseback riding is particularly helpful since many individuals with autism have low muscle density and tone
- Expanding social skills by guiding and communicating with a horse
- Increasing engagement with peers
- Improving language skills
- Lowering stress and irritability
4. Emotional Support Animals – Most commonly pets, emotional support animals aid a person with autism in navigating stressful situations, like travel, school, and medical appointments. Typically, emotional support animals must be certified by a clinician to enter a specific setting where animals are generally not allowed.
Emotional support animals contribute to their owner’s sense of well-being. Certification can come from a doctor, therapist, or other medical professional. With the proper documentation, emotional support animals can accompany their owners in various settings, though there are limits depending on the size and temperament of the animal.
Studies have shown that children with autism who had emotional support animals improved social skills by sharing and expressing compassion with their peers. Researchers also noted that the positive impact would be most significant if the pet arrived when the child was old enough to recognize and remember the event. No matter the type of species, these animals can:
- Help an individual self-soothe
- Encourage social communication
- Lower anxiety in stressful situations such as high-traffic locations and events
5. Pets – For many with ASD, pets provide a unique social bond that is unavailable by any other means. Research suggests that having a pet promotes prosocial behaviors. Pets help to foster shared interactions like conversations and smiles. The arrival of a pet into any person’s life can be transformative, especially when introduced when the child is young, the pet is young, or both. Further, the variety of pets available makes them a fantastic option for anyone of any age, whether a dog, cat, reptile, or other cute creature. Pets help in ways such as:
- Forming a close-knit bond
- Providing stress and anxiety relief
- Promoting healthy social interaction
- Improving engagement with other animals and people
Other Animal Therapy for Autism Tips
You can find therapy animals in your local animal shelter or pet store or with the help of an organization dedicated to training. Keep these tips in mind when selecting an animal to help your child on the spectrum:
- Introduce the animal to your child and observe their behavior and physiology. Watch for responsiveness and engagement to ensure a good match.
- Watch for intimidation from either party.
- Ensure that the animal is calm, healthy, and aware.
- Try to have multiple interactions over time.
The Benefits of ABA Therapy for Autism
Like many other treatment programs, animal therapy for autism works best when combined with applied behavior analysis (ABA) therapy services, endorsed by the U.S. Surgeon General’s office, the National Institute of Mental Health, and the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, among other organizations and agencies.
At ABA Centers of Florida, we take the time and effort to provide a comprehensive treatment plan tailored to individual needs. If you or someone you love is considering animal therapy for autism, we highly recommend pairing such a program with ABA therapy for a fully-encompassing experience. For more information regarding our ABA therapy services, contact us today and ask about a free consultation.