Animals and Autism – What’s behind it Part 5

Service dogsWe’ve looked at ways animals can directly benefit people with autism in terms of increased socialisation and communication. In this post we’ll consider how animals may be able to bring benefits to the wider family.

A 2009 study (Mancil et al) of stress in parents of children with disabilities, found that parents of children with ASD reported some of the highest stress levels. Any parent who has had to deal with meltdowns, bolting in public places and battling to get the appropriate service for their child is likely to agree with this. The truth is raising an autistic child can bring numerous challenges and worries along with positives.

Service dogs in particular have proved to be of benefit in allowing parents to relax more knowing that they have an ally when it comes to dealing with difficult behaviour. Although one of the primary functions of service dogs for autism is to prevent bolting in public places by using a trained dog who will anchor the child via a special lead, many parents have reported that the dog’s presence allowed them to relax and sleep better as they came to rely on the dog as an extra care giver, providing a second set of eyes on the child.

Service dogs can provide both a calming and restraining presence for the autistic child in public places, thus reducing the stress of carrying out every day activities such as appointments and visits to the shop. A further advantage is that the visible presence of a service dog in harness can often act as an ice breaker with the public, leading to increased communication for both the parents and child. The dogs can also obviate the need for lengthy explanations of the child’s behaviour and can help reduce stigma attached to that behaviour.

The presence of an animal in the home can bring benefits to family and carers in other ways. It can potentially be a shared source of pleasure for all members and also, in the case of dogs, a way for other family members to find some relaxation time through stroking, walking and playing.

However, animals come with responsibilites both in terms of time and finances and it is important to consider the implications of this before bringing an animal into the home. Parents already stressed by looking after an autistic child and who might not have a natural affinity for animals in the first place may find this an additional burden. Research backs this up. In a study of service dogs in families in 2004 (Davis et al) it was found that whilst 88% of families found the dogs brought significant benefits, 53% found them to be burdensome in terms of time, finance and behaviour issues.Taking on any animal requires forethought and planning but taking on an animal with the hope of benefitting someone with autism requires this even more.

In future posts I will consider the ethics of using animal assisted interventions in autism.


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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.