Animals and Autism – Just what is behind it?

As yet another story emerges about the amazing affect animals can have on the lives of people with autism, The Huffington Post published an article on May 4, Boy with Aspergers’s kisses his mom for the first time after adopting loving rescue pit bull. I thought I’d share a few insights into why this is.

In this post I’ll take a brief look at the background to animal therapy and how it came to have such a special place in autism.

The benefit of animals to humans is hardly new, but the first recorded medical example of it was in 1792, when William Tuke, founder of the highly enlightened Quaker York Retreat for the mentally ill, observed the effects of the presence of small animals on patients.  He wrote of the animals that,

“intercourse with them sometimes tends to awaken the social and benevolent feelings.”

This may well strike a chord with parents of autistic children who have responded well to animals – it is quite possible that a portion of Tuke’s patients fell on the autism spectrum.

In the 19th century, Florence Nightingale, heroine of the Crimean War and founder of modern nursing, observed the benefits of animals to sick children – a far cry from the stuffier approach which followed.  It wasn’t however, until the second half of the 20th century, that any dedicated research into animal therapy began to happen.  In 1962 Child Psychiatrist, Boris Levinson, introduced his dog, Jingles, in the pioneering work he was doing with autistic children.  Jingles proved to be a big hit in facilitating a relationship between child and therapist.

The potential social benefits of animals to autistic people were there to see, but Levinson’s work initially met with considerable skepticism by the scientific community – so much so that for someone less driven than Levinson, the whole animal therapy movement could have been dead in the water.  But Levinson knew that he had witnessed something amazing and persisted.  The psychoanalytical bias of the times meant that the scientific community only started to catch up with Levinaon when it became known through new biographical accounts that Freud himself had observed and endorsed the therapeutic benefits of having a dog in the treatment room.  Levinson’s work with animals and autistic children is widely recognised as the beginning of the animal therapy movement in America.

The emergence of the science of Biophilia (Wilson, 1984) which proposes that there is an inherent bond between humans and other living systems, furthered the cause of seeing human/animal interactions as beneficial.  A number of studies have emerged since and some of these relate particularly to autism, as researchers try to pinpoint just exactly what it is that can make animals such a catalyst for change in people with autism.

In my next few posts, I will look at research findings into why animals can benefit people with autism.