Autism and Animals – What’s behind it? Part 4

Animals motivating communication

In previous posts we looked at the potential of animals to reduce anxiety and promote social skills. But can it go beyond this? Can interacting with animals  promote interaction between people with autism who might otherwise  not wish to engage with  those around them?  The evidence suggests yes.

There are many anecdotal accounts of  people with autism who have been encouraged to communicate because of animals,  even stories of children whose first word might be directed towards an animal.  From the very beginning of the animal therapy movement in the US, child psychiatrist Boris Levinson noted that a dog in the treatment room lead to increased interaction between the child and therapist. The process by which a third party such as a dog became the focus of shared attention and lead to increased willingness to communicate with another human, promoting discussion and shared feelings  would later become known as “triangling” (Cains 1983) Because the animal provided a distinct focus away from the human social interaction and was an object of interest and affection to the child, research speculates that this leads to a less presurised and more natural format for exchange and discussion.

One of the most moving stories about animals helping to unlock communication in autism is the book “A Friend Called Henry” by Nuala Gardiner (pub).  Nuala and her partner Jamie found a unique way of communicating with their then non-verbal son, Dale, by adopting the voice of Dale’s beloved dog Henry.  Nuala found that over time she was able to interject her own voice so that without realising it Dale would be able to communicate with her both directly and correctly.   This in turn meant that Dale’s confidence in talking to others increased.  As Nuala told me:

“Henry was a facilitator for Dale in every aspect.  When others showed an interest in Henry this gave Dale the opportunity to talk about Henry and other topics”.

Perhaps the biggest testimony to the power of animals to facilitate interaction is in Dale’s own words.  Aged 10 he told his mum:

“If we hadn’t talked through Henry, I would have chosen not to talk to you at all”.

CC BY-NC-ND by Doc Tharp

CC BY-NC-ND by Doc Tharp

In an experiment in 2002 (Martin and Farnum), researchers found that children exposed to three separate objects – a ball, a stuffed dog and a live dog – at three separate times initiated far more interaction with the live dog, kept a more focused gaze and engaged with the experimenter in discussing the dog.  Further occupational therapy sessions involving animals have found that children engaged in significantly more social interaction and use of language when the animal was present.

Animals may not be able to unlock a non-verbal world for everyone but this does not mean that they are not serving a purpose in teaching  communication skills. Simply being able to commune freely, at whatever level, with an animal who does not judge or respond with an overwhelming or complex response, can offer opportunities to someone with autism who may otherwise remain closed off.  The autistic person who remains happily silent with a pet is not necessarily not communicating: they may well be taking time out to engage in a less stressful version of it.   For others having an animal as a focus of attention can provide a much needed easier means of initiating and sustaining interaction than through unmediated human contact.  Over time and with practice this can provide an invaluable tool for learning communication skills.

In my next post I’ll look at ways in which animals can benefit the wider family of an autistic person.

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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.


  1. Alison Whitaker PhD says:

    I have found this series very interesting. However, I am wondering why citations are included without the complete reference.

    How can the reader find the original publication the author references?

    • susan dunne says:

      That’s a fair point Alison – it was a conscious choice not to include full references because these pieces are more aimed at general rather than academic readers and full references can disrupt the flow and be a bit overfacing (in fact the original paper I wrote as an academic assignment contained over 95 references fully cited!).

      You can google the citations given which should take you to the work in question but if you have any you cant’ get hold of that you’re particularly interested in let me know.