Despite limited research, interest in the treatment of Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) using animal-assisted therapy has grown over the decade.
A study published in the American Journal of Veterinary Behavior is the first scientific evidence that dog ownership can diminish stress and improve functionality in families who have a child with ASD, as well as reduce dysfunctional interactions between parent and child.
Autism, also known as Autism Spectrum Disorder, is a developmental disorder that affects behavior and communication, covering a wide scale in terms of severity and type of symptoms.
Professor Daniel Mills and his research associates at the University of Lincoln in the United Kingdom is the first team to examine the long-term effects of owning a dog in families who have a child with autism.
The study, funded by the Human Animal Bond Research Institute (HABRI) Foundation, is a follow up to a previous study on short-term effects to determine the longevity of the benefits in connection with quality of life issues.
Families were divided into two groups: the intervention group with a pet dog and the control group without a pet dog.
Data were acquired using the Parenting Stress Index (PSI) that measures Total Stress, Parental Distress and Difficult Child, with standardized individual reporting.
The study reveals these three main insights:
- The PSI of the intervention group showed significant improvement, normalizing from clinically high stress levels, compared to the control group.
- Stress levels continue to decline among dog owners, but not in families without a dog, demonstrating that the benefits last for years after acquiring the pet.
- The more attached the caregiver is to the dog, the less stressed they are, highlighting the importance of the bond between caregiver and pet.
ASD therapy with dogs is an emerging science that requires further evaluation and research. Due to the individual nature of autism and the unique characteristics of dogs, disparities give rise to three study limitations:
- Making direct comparisons with other studies measuring parental stress levels in ASD programs is difficult.
- A randomized case control design is neither ethical nor feasible, as pet dogs are regarded as family members by their owners and acquiring them represents a voluntary act of intervention.
- ASD diagnosis, evaluation, and treatment in children are individual and varied.
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