When we think about supporting our children through the challenges of Autism Spectrum Disorder, getting the family pet to help is not at the forefront of our minds. However, more and more research is slowly proving that your canine family member can be truly constructive and supportive in bringing your child out, empowering them, enhancing confidence and improving communication and interaction. As many children with Autism Spectrum Disorder can tend to be rather solitary at times, bringing a gentle, positive and friendly dog in to the mix can work wonders to increase bonding, improve the child’s interaction with others and encourage the development of a lasting, trusting and positive relationship between child and pet. The use of canines in supporting children with Autism Spectrum Disorder is not a new concept, but it has certainly become more prevalent over the past few years. This is partially due to research which has been undertaken by The Pet Care Trust of Washington, D.C., a forward-thinking charity which invested over thirty thousand dollars in investigating the power of our four-legged friends in supporting kids with behavioral and communication issues. The Trust is not alone, as other not-for-profit foundations such as the Delta Society, which is based in Renton, Washington, also funds research in to animal therapy for impaired adults and children, particularly those with autism. The value of the studies have been immediately apparent, even though no organization has yet undertaken comprehensive scientific research in to the benefits of pairing children with autism, with their pets. David Frei, the longstanding co-host of the USA Network's annual telecast of the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show, has added his support to the research, admitting the obvious benefits of using dogs to support children with autism. Preliminary research has suggested that dogs encourage autistic children to be more gentle, creative and communicative, by supporting them to develop strong emotional bonds with their canine pets. Simple activities such as engaging with the child to tell stories about their pet, interacting with them, playing and petting them all look to have a really positive effect on encouraging social behaviors to develop and strengthen communication skills.
According to a pioneer of the research, Dr. Francois Martin, “No particular dog breed is favored for the therapy, but personality is everything. What I want is a dog who is very forgiving, people-oriented, and if a person is behaving strangely, the dog will look at the therapist and say, `That kid is behaving strangely, but it's all right with me. Some dogs have a tendency, if they're anxious in a situation, to be aggressive, and I don't want that dog in my research.''
Martin has suggested that there is more financial support and research necessary before the benefits can be concretized, but it seems that the family pet can have a hugely positive impact upon children with disorders on the Autism Spectrum. He has stated: “If we want this field of animal-assisted therapy to progress, we have to take this time, and we need this data. We had a young girl, 12, but developmentally only 2 ½ years old, not talking a lot. She did very well – she was sharing; she was smiling. We're not expecting miracles. But this is very significant, because when you're in the learning process, you need to focus.''