The Benefits of Animal-Assisted Therapies
In hospitals, it is not uncommon to see volunteers walking dogs through the halls, going from room to room, visiting patients to help speed their recovery. When these furry helpers are utilized outside a hospital with children who have special needs, there can be many benefits.
Baról researched the effects of animal assisted therapy on those with autism and whether the therapy could improve social skills. During the 15 week study, Zachary, a 5 year old boy with autism, was paired up with an 8 year old dog named Henry. Zachary was nearly nonverbal and was prone to throwing temper tantrums. He had difficulty with social skills, such as how to play with other. Halfway through the study, Zachary delivered his first complete sentence, displayed empathy towards others, and his tantrums decreased.
Baról references Evans (2008) who reports that “the companionship of animals can help reduce any lonely feelings in autistic children, promoting a base of healthy character development within them, including personality traits such as being respectful, trusting, contributing, committed, self-confident, and responsible. Autistic children can also learn decision-making skills, problem-solving skills, and both language and social skills through interactions with animals.”
Hippotherapy or equine-assisted therapy, involves specially trained therapists who work with the individual and the horse. Occupational therapist Barbara Smith describes the “child-horse relationship” as one that improves body awareness and motor planning by having autism spectrum disorder children balance to stay on the horse, keep tension in their feet so they stay in the stirrups, and hold the reins. The child and the horse create a bond that allows the child to practice certain social skills without fear of rejection. “A properly trained therapy horse (chosen for having the right temperament, anatomy, and gait) is a forgiving friend who provides unconditional acceptance even if the client is making odd sounds, rocks back and forth, or pats the mane with too much force.” Smith sees this caring relationship as a “stepping stone” to caring human relationships.
The Children’s Tomorrow Foundation is looking to fund programs that offer creative animal-assisted therapies to children with AS/HFA. Please fill out the Apply for a Grant formif you would like the Children’s Tomorrow Foundation to consider funding your animal-assisted therapy program.
Baról, Jennifer M. “The Effects of Animal-Assisted Therapy on a Child with Autism.” New Mexico Highlands University. 2006.