Animals and Autism – What’s behind it Part 2

goldfishIn my last post I gave a brief overview of how animal therapy came about and of its particular significance to autism. In this post I’ll look at how animals can help reduce fear and anxiety in autism.

We’re all familiar with the goldfish in the dentist waiting room or the popular belief that stroking a pet can reduce blood pressure, lower cholesterol and help prevent strokes.  People often turn to animals in time of need and comfort as a way of reducing anxiety or stress.

But for people on the autistic spectrum, anxiety may be a fairly constant state, a response to living in a world which may seem alien, frightening and a constant assault on the senses.  Many people on the spectrum respond by withdrawing into themselves; others may focus on an area of interest which is so intense it blocks out the external world, thus removing the cause of anxiety and distress.  For others so-called “meltdowns” may in fact be logical responses to an unbearable situation.

But being on the autistic spectrum does not make you immune to the need to connect with those around you.  As social animals we are still drawn to the safety and security of the herd. Unfortunately, the source of safety – the social environment – can also be the source of most threat.  As I have written elsewhere (A Pony in the Bedroom), to connect on the spectrum is to risk being overwhelmed, engulfed by the very thing you need most.  Sometimes it may seem easier just to remain alone and apart, reinforcing a vicious circle. This is where animals can step in, providing a liminal space where there is contact and connection without the attendant anxiety.

Several reasons have been postulated for this.  Animal behaviour is less complex than that of humans and animals are also more tolerant and accepting of most human behaviour.  With animals there is no need to put on a socially acceptable front, to interpret spoken and unspoken communication or to feel compelled to communicate back or feel wanting if you are unable to.  The reasons for much of the anxiety generated by the social world are just not there, it is possible to relax, to breathe more easily, to enjoy the presence of another without threat.

For people on the spectrum, the simple repetitive routines and non-verbal actions of animals are easier to decode and predict.   Others may find the act of rhythmic stroking and the sensory touch of fur induces pleasure and relaxation.  Animals often bring less intense eye contact – in fact dogs will actively avoid it as in canine terms it represents aggression, whereas other animals such as horses have physiological differences with eyes placed to the sides of the head.   Unlike the relationship with humans which may seem enforced, controlling and unpredictable, the relationship with animals can often give a sense of control back to the autistic person through the presence of a lead or reins or by being able to initiate contacts such as grooming.

All the above are conducive to anxiety reduction  but is there any scientific evidence to back this up?  

A guinea pig from the study. The skin conductance sensor can be seen on the child’s wrist.

A guinea pig from the study. The skin conductance sensor can be seen on the child’s wrist.

Research into the affects of animal /human interactions is  a relatively new area but some interesting studies have emerged, particularly with reference to autism.  In one of the first studies of its kind in 2010, Viau and colleagues measured cortisol levels in autistic children whilst in the presence of a service dog.   Results from the study showed that the presence of the dog led to a reduction in the Cortisol Awakening Response  which is largely responsible for stress.  A further study in 2014 by Carmel and colleagues revealed a significant decrease in cortisol levels in autistic people taking part in horse assisted therapy.

Whilst dogs and horses are often viewed as the most popular therapy animals it seems that even the humble guinea pig or a rabbit can help reduce anxiety.  A recent study conducted by  animal assisted intervention researcher Marguerite O’Haire and colleagues found that in a reading task the anxiety levels of children with autism compared with children without autism  were significantly higher.  However when the task was done in the presence of a guinea pig the autistic children’s anxiety levels were significantly reduced as evidenced by special wrist devices designed to detect and measure anxiety in social situations.

The knock on effects of lowered anxiety are considerable, leading to better mood, increased socialisation and overall relaxation and well being.  However it is important to remember that although results are promising, research into animals and autism is at a relatively early stage and may not be appropriate for everyone on the spectrum

In further posts I will look at animals as motivators to improve social bonding with humans.


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About Susan Dunne

Susan Dunne has Aspergers and works with young autistic adults. She is the author of “A Pony in the Bedroom” (Jessica Kingsley 2015), an insider account of an autistic person’s relationship with horses. She lives in Yorkshire and has 4 horses and runs a pony therapy service.