Animals and autism – Ethics and Safety Part 7

In this final post of the series I’ll be looking at some of the ethical issues that arise when using animals in therapy and in particular the use of exotic animals.

Whilst for the majority of people Animal Assisted Interventions will involve the use of smaller domestic animals, when it comes to animals assisting with autism it seems that all animals are seen as potentially therapeutic.  The use of elephants in Thailand and South Africa,  and dolphins from Florida to the Ukraine bear this out.  However, some worrying trends in the treatment of exotic animals have been voiced.   The Born Free Foundation in the UK has raised serious concerns about both the safety of the practice and welfare of the use of elephants in Thailand to help autistic children. They point out that as large wild animals, elephants can pose a safety risk and draw attention to the cruel training practices which can involve keeping elephants chained in a small area from the age of 3 or 4 until they are deemed suitable to work with children.

Similar concerns have been raised about the use of dolphins which are kept in tanks and small sea enclosures.  Critics of Dolphin Assisted Therapy (DAT) point out that dolphins are free ocean ranging creatures who will inevitably become stressed if contained in small spaces.  Ric O’Barry, former trainer of the TV star Flipper and now director of the Dolphin Project writes:

“It is inherently hypocritical to capture and confine dolphins – thereby destroying the quality of their lives – in an attempt to enhance our own”.

Stressed dolphins are more likely to cause injury and as large animals weighing between 3 and 400 pound, this can be considerable.

A further concern here is that parents desperate for a “cure” might suspend disbelief, willing to try anything and spend any amount of money in search of help for their child’s autism when in effect there is no sound scientific proof that dolphin therapy works other than as a short-term enjoyable experience which cannot be sustained due to the huge cost it involves. Author and autism lecturer Donna Williams has criticised this practice as preying on people’s vulnerability.

Well, perhaps the good news is you don’t have to fork out your life-savings to get soaked (literally and financially) whilst swimming with dolphins;  nor do you need to embark on a horseback journey  to Mongolia or even go beyond your own backyard or neighbourhood to experience the benefits of animals.    Domestic pets bring the same benefits with the advantage that they are available on a daily basis to help with teaching social interaction, developing day to day living skills and providing some much needed contact for people with autism.

However, there are ethical considerations in the use of domestic animals too.  Smaller animals like guinea pigs and rabbits are at risk of injury and even death if handled inappropriately and here it is important to remember that some people on the spectrum may be hyposensetive (ie needing more sensory input than an average person) which could lead to applying deep pressure to vulnerable animals.  An animal which is afraid or in discomfort is unlikely to provide much in the way of therapy. In 2008 a study considering the welfare of service dogs for children with autism (Burrows, Adams and Millman) concluded that providing an appropriate environment and level of care for the animal in both residential settings and at home has a crucial effect on the dog’s ability to perform as an assistance dog.

Researchers Lori Marino and Gay Bradshaw in a paper published in 2008 conclude that:

“AAT (animal assisted therapy) can benefit animals and humans only if the welfare of both are considered and guarded.  If animals are to be called “therapists” then standards of care and participation must conform to those of humans.  Otherwise such activities merely re-package animal exploitation and abuse under the guise of healing”.