When it comes to choosing which animal might be appropriate for people with autism a number of factors could play a part. Whilst potentially any animal from a goldfish to an elephant (more on the use of exotic animals in my next post) can be of assistance, time, money, facilities and personal preferences all need to be taken into account.
For the majority of people, domestic animals such as cats and dogs probably come to mind and in the case of animal assisted interventions in the home, service dogs are likely to be the animal of choice. Organisations which provide service dogs are keen to stress however that taking on a dog is a major commitment involving daily care, expense, time and supervision. Whilst for some, the benefits of a service dog may outweigh any of these, for others it can be an additional burden in an already stressed life.
Like dogs, horses have played an important role as therapy animals and bring with them the additional benefits of increased exercise, a change of environment and opportunities for developing confidence and skills as well as increased social interaction. Hippotherapy, the use of horses as a means of therapy, is a whole subject in itself but whilst research in to its potential benefits for autism is promising more research is needed to provide objective evidence. Honesty compels me to admit a certain bias in favour of horses due to the personal benefits they have brought me in dealing with autism and for those people who have a connection with horses the affects can be transforming and far-reaching but for some people (both on and off the spectrum) horses can seem a daunting prospect due to their size. This and their inherent flight response also makes them a potentially more risky animal than the traditional pet. Additionally, riding is an expensive activity and owning a horse involves both considerable cost and time. However if horses play a significant role in improving the lives of people with autism this may be time and money well spent.
Enabling people with autism to have access to animals does not however have to be burdensome. For some, caged pets such as rabbits and hamsters may be a better option and even the humble goldfish can provide benefits. I was recently told of a man with autism in his forties who had had goldfish in the past but was now living in a residential unit with a strictly no pets policy. Keith was extremely keen to get some fish and as goldfish are a relatively easy maintenance pet, the staff decided to make an exception. The effects on Keith were remarkable – whereas previously he had struggled to get up and dressed in the morning, becoming stuck in perseverating behaviour, he now changed his focus and made it part of his routine to be up first to feed the goldfish.
A study which involved taking guinea pigs into schools for occupational therapy sessions with children with autism concluded that classroom based animal assisted activities might provide a relatively simply and cost-effective way of helping improve social functioning (O’Haire et al 2014). However, whilst some residential and educational units keep animals on site, other institutions may not be open to looking at the potential benefits of animals. For those for whom animal ownership is not viable, zoos and the growth of petting farms can also provide access to animals without the inherent commitment of ownership, as can visits to pet shops and garden centres with animals.
Ultimately, the temperament of the animal and the affinity with the person with autism are paramount. Not everyone on the spectrum will be drawn to animals, just as not everyone who is neurotypical will be. Interaction with some animals such as birds which can be noisy and unpredictable may create more harm than good and it is better to do some research prior to acquiring any animal rather than end up with an animal which is unwanted and creates an additional burden of care on already overstretched carers.
My next and final post in this series will consider the ethical and safety implications of using animal assisted interventions in autism.