Fossil evidence indicates a companionate association between human beings and animals dating back at least half a million years. Today, this relationship remains strong, as evidenced by millions of visits to zoos annually, high rates of pet ownership, and the economic prosperity of the pet industry. A review of the literature indicates that Human-Animal Interaction (HAI) can remarkably enhance human physical health and psychological well-being (O'Haire, 2010). Following onto these benefits, the inclusion of animals in therapeutic activities, known as Animal-Assisted Intervention (AAI), has been suggested as a treatment practice for autism spectrum disorder (ASD).
A systematic review of the empirical research on AAI for ASD identified 14 peer-reviewed studies on the topic. Reported outcomes from AAI included improvements for multiple areas of functioning known to be impaired in ASD, namely increased social interaction and communication as well as decreased problem behaviors, autistic severity, and stress. Yet despite unanimously positive outcomes, most studies were limited by methodological weaknesses. My review demonstrates that although there is preliminary “proof of concept” of AAI for ASD, more rigorous research is essential prior to its implementation and manualization (O'Haire, 2013).
To address the shortcomings of previous research on AAI for children with ASD and their typically-developing (TD) peers, I implemented and evaluated an Animal-Assisted Activities (AAA) program with guinea pigs as classroom pets for 64 children with ASD and 128 TD children in 41 mainstream, inclusion classrooms. Each classroom was provided with a pair of guinea pigs to live in the classroom for eight weeks. During this time, each child with ASD was paired with two randomly-selected, TD children from the same classroom to receive 16 x 20-minute sessions outside of the classroom. These sessions consisted of free time with the guinea pigs under adult supervision in order to allow natural interactions between the children and animals without the targeted components of therapeutic intervention.
For participants with ASD, analysis of teacher- and parent-reported child behavior indicated significant improvements in social functioning, including increases in social approach behaviors, decreases in social withdrawal behaviors, and increases in social skills, from before to after the AAA program, but not an eight-week waitlist period. More than half of parents also reported that participants demonstrated an increased interest in attending school during the program (O'Haire, McKenzie, McCune, & Slaughter, 2013a). For TD children, analysis of teacher- and parent-reported child behavior indicated significant increases in social skills and decreases in problem behaviors from before to after the AAA program, but not the waitlist period (O'Haire, McKenzie, McCune, & Slaughter, 2013b). Therefore, a brief program incorporating animals into the classroom appears to improve social functioning for both children with ASD and their TD peers.
In order to corroborate teacher- and parent-report data, I conducted a blind behavioral observational study of participants interacting with the animals compared to an engaging set of toys as an attention control. Ninety-nine children from 15 classrooms in 4 schools participated in this study. Each group of three participants (one child with ASD and two TD peers) was video-recorded during three 10-minute, free-play sessions with toys and three 10-minute, free-play sessions with two guinea pigs. Two blind observers coded the behavior of children with ASD and their TD peers. Results demonstrated that participants with ASD displayed more social approach behaviors (including talking, looking at faces, and making tactile contact) towards people and received more social approach behaviors from their TD peers in the presence of animals compared to toys. They also displayed more prosocial behaviors and positive affect (i.e., smiling and laughing) as well as less self-focused behaviors and negative affect (i.e., frowning, crying, and whining) in the presence of animals compared to toys. These data suggest that the presence of an animal can significantly increase social approach behaviors among children with ASD (O'Haire, McKenzie, Beck, & Slaughter, 2013).
Taken together, the results of this thesis build upon previous HAI literature and preliminary studies of AAI for ASD by presenting a comprehensive and robust set of experiments on classroom-based AAA for children with ASD and their TD peers. Results demonstrate the feasibility and potential efficacy of a new AAA model, which sets the foundation for innovative HAI programs that substantially enhance the lives of children with ASD, their TD peers, their families, their schools, and their communities.