Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) in children is becoming more prevalent as diagnostic tools improve and more parents and caretakers are aware of possible warning signs. Increasing numbers of research studies have been conducted in the past decade to discover effective modalities of treatment and other therapeutic interventions. There is also more recent evidence to show that interactions with animals can be therapeutic and can improve social interactions – a deficit for many individuals with ASD. Animal-assisted interventions (AAI) are categorized into three groups: animal-assisted activities (AAA), animal-assisted therapies (AAT), and service animal programs (SAP). AAAs are delivered by trained professionals in institutional settings such as hospitals, AATs are used by professionals working on specific therapy goals, and SAPs use animals to assist individuals with disabilities in performing daily tasks. Some studies have shown that SAP animals in particular can improve the quality of life for children with ASD and their parents and guardians. Various risk factors associated with ASD including elopement, a lack of awareness of environmental hazards, behavioral challenges, and social deficits may also be alleviated when an assistance dog is used as a treatment intervention.
In 2014, researchers in the Republic of Ireland conducted a cross-sectional study collecting information on parents’ and guardians’ ratings of the impact of an assistance dog on safety from environmental hazards; public acceptance and awareness of ASD; sense of competence managing a child with ASD; and level of caregiver stress/strain.1 Researchers also obtained additional information about parents’ and guardians’ perspectives on the benefits and drawbacks of having an assistance dog. Half of the caregivers had a child with an assistance dog, while the other half were on the waiting list. Figure 1 shows three categories of benefits – physical factors, relationship factors, and family factors – and various responses in each category.
Figure 1. Parents/guardians perceived benefits of having an assistance dog, organized by themes.
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