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Impact of Dog Assisted Therapy On Children with Autism Spectrum Disorders

Saturday, 4 May 2013: 09:00-13:00
Banquet Hall (Kursaal Centre)
R. Maxim1, M. W. Baig2, D. Zand3, A. C. Vercellone4, R. Grimmer5, M. Bultas6 and H. Matsuo7, (1)Saint Louis University School of Medicine, St. Louis, MO, (2)Pediatrics, SSM Cardinal Glennon Children's Medical Center, St. Louis, MO, (3)Saint Louis University, St Louis, MO, (4)Department of Psychology, Saint Louis University, St. Louis, MO, (5)SSM Cardinal Glennon Children's Medical Center, St. Louis, MO, (6)Saint Louis University School of Nursing, St. Louis, MO, (7)Department of Sociology/Criminal Justice, Saint Louis University, St. Louis, MO
Background:  Given core deficits in language, social interaction and play, children with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) may benefit across multiple contexts from incorporating trained dog interactions into their regular therapy routines. There are very few small studies showing that the presence of a therapy dog can facilitate verbal and nonverbal communication as well as decrease anxiety, particularly in children with autism spectrum disorders.

Objectives:  To assess the impact of a therapy dog on anxiety, communication, shared enjoyment, compliance and attention in children with ASD.

Methods: In this retrospective study we reviewed the videotaped clinical session and medical records of 22 patients enrolled in the dog therapy clinic at a large Midwestern city children’s hospital.  The visit consisted of the child’s participation in a Physical Examination task, Blood Test task, Make a Basket task and several pretend play tasks.  The tasks were completed with and without the therapy dog.  Each task incorporated the use of the therapy dog in facilitating reenactment of the targeted routines.  Aberrant Behavior Checklist (ABC), the Dog Therapy Questionnaire, and the Preferred Activities Questionnaire were completed by parents before the session. We assessed the parental expectations as well as the perceived benefits of incorporating dog interactions into their child’s therapy session through the Feedback Questionnaire which was completed by the parent at the end of the observed sessions.

Results: After excluding the subjects from whom we were unable to obtain parental consent, the final sample consisted of 22 children with an age range of 2-14 years, mean age 5.73 years, 1 SD=3.298. There were 72.7% males, and 63.6% Caucasians, 13.6% African Americans, and 22.7% children with other racial backgrounds.  Most common behavior problems reported by parents were temper outbursts, abnormal and repetitive movements, disobedience, and short attention span. Behavior problems reported by ten or more parents were defined as common problems. The effect of dog therapy on child’s behavior as reported by parents was classified into three groups:  improvement (in 63% of the children), no change (in 27% of the children) and partial improvement (in 9.1% of the children). Although Kruskal-Wallis test of comparison of age difference among three groups was not significant, older children tended to show more improvement than younger children.  Parents who reported improvement in their children’s behavior mentioned “their child had improved attention, “looked happier,” and “more emotionally connected to people”.

Videotape analysis of child behavior with and without the dog will be available for the final presentation.

Conclusions: Utilizing a dog in the treatment process may help children diagnosed with ASD to become more compliant, attentive, social, and adapted to their environment.

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