Animal Therapy Partners for Children with Disabilities

Animal-assisted therapy (AAI) has been gaining traction in healthcare and beyond. This innovative approach utilizes the healing power of animals to provide comfort and support to children facing various health challenges, as well as a way to support mobility. Among those benefitting from this pet focused form of therapy are children with disabilities such as Down syndrome, autism, spina bifida, attention deficit disorder, muscular dystrophy, and cerebral palsy.

Understanding animal-assisted therapy

Animal-assisted therapy encompasses a range of interventions aimed at promoting physical and mental well-being. For example, the Mayo Clinic has more than a dozen registered therapy dogs and their handlers as part of their Caring Canines program. This includes both structured therapy sessions and more informal activities involving animals, according to an article on their site titled, “Home Remedies: Animals as healers.”1 They claim that the presence of specially trained animals, typically dogs, can work wonders in reducing pain, anxiety, depression, and fatigue in children across different healthcare settings. It’s worth noting that the most common animals used for AAI are horses, but dogs are far easier logistically and less expensive to employ.

Healing power for children with disabilities

Marguerite E. O’Haire at Purdue University conducted a systematic review of published research on AAI for children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) titled “Animal-assisted intervention for autism spectrum disorder: a systematic literature review” published in the Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders2. She says that “Reported outcomes 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.”

Furthermore, O’Haire’s research and other studies have acknowledged indications that animals have a unique ability to alleviate stress and anxiety. Studies have shown that children with autism experience lower stress levels in the presence of animals, compared to human companions alone. Animals seem to act as buffers, providing a positive focus of attention and facilitating social interactions that may otherwise be challenging.

Moving towards evidence-based practices

O’Haire found unanimously positive outcomes reported in the studies she found, but most were limited in value by many methodological weaknesses. She does say that her review demonstrates that there’s preliminary “proof of concept” of AAI for ASD and highlights the need for further, more rigorous research. This also may be a way to integrate movement and mobility activities into physical therapy.

The existing evidence highlights the promising potential of integrating animals into therapeutic programming for children with disabilities. After all, the bond between humans and animals transcends companionship—it offers healing and hope. For children facing the daily challenges of disabilities, animal-assisted therapy provides a beacon of light, fostering social connections and easing emotional burdens.

1 “Home Remedies: Animals as healers” February 19, 2020 Mayo Clinic

Written by Mayo Clinic Staff

2 O’Haire ME. “Animal-assisted intervention for autism spectrum disorder: a systematic literature review.” Journal of Autism Developmental Disorders. 2013 Jul;43(7):1606-22. doi: 10.1007/s10803-012-1707-5. PMID: 23124442.

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