The use of animals for therapeutic purposes is a fairly recent phenomenon. Animal-assisted activities are emerging as a promising treatment approach, especially for children on the autism spectrum. Animal-assisted therapy can be as simple as bringing home a family pet or even include more structured and well planned activities.
Animal interactions are said to bring a sense of serenity and self-confidence that lead to a reduction in anxiety, stimulate social interaction and conversation and give children opportunities for nurturing, exercise and play.
A recent research conducted by Page Walker Buck & Angela Lavery investigated parental perceptions of animal-assisted activities for children diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). In-depth interviews of ten families provided insight into how human-animal interactions shape children’s social behaviors.
The parents reported that because animals don’t expect things from you or don’t say mean things to you, the children felt comfortable and relaxed in their presence. They were able to respond with gentleness and experienced lower levels of anxiety.
An interesting thing observed was that, reduced frustration and aggression extended beyond interactions with animals to interactions within the family system. Parents also reported that the ways in which their children interacted with animals were more natural and intuitive than the ways they would interact with humans.
One of the most intriguing findings was that the changes observed by the parents in their children appeared to offer them optimism about their children’s future. This newfound sense of hope seemed to be shared by several parents.