(NaturalHealth365) Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) continues to rise across the nation, with the Centers for Disease Control reporting that 1 in 68 children is currently affected. ASD, a group of neurodevelopmental disorders characterized by cognitive and social impairments plus communication difficulties.
Now, emerging research indicates that the simple fact of dog ownership can reduce stress in autistic children and facilitate better communication skills.
Never underestimate the power of love
In a new study published in Journal of Pediatric Nursing, researchers questioned 70 parents of children with ASD about the therapeutic effects of dogs, and found that a majority of them strongly believed that dogs benefit autistic children by offering love and companionship – while, at the same time, helping to reduce stress and teaching responsibility. Two thirds of the 70 parents said they presently owned dogs; 94 percent of these reported close bonds between the ASD child and the pet, and a large proportion acknowledged that perceived benefits for the child were the reason for getting the dog in the first place.
Interestingly, 70 percent of ASD-affected families who did not own dogs expressed belief in the benefits of dog ownership as well, possibly from hearing the accounts of other families’ rewarding relationships with their dogs, or noting their child’s attraction to dogs in general.
Noting that dogs offer unconditional love, experts in human-animal interaction at the Missouri University College of Veterinary Medicine seemed unsurprised by the study’s results. The research team added that a dog can serve as a “bridge” between an ASD child and his peers, helping him interact with others and setting the stage for friendship.
Science validates the power of loving dogs
In a 2010 study published in Psychoneuroendocrinology, Canadian researchers found that specially-trained service dogs reduced anxiety and promoted socialization skills of children with ASD. The team measured morning levels of the children’s levels of the stress hormone cortisol at three different points: before the dog was introduced to the family, while the dog was with the family, and after the dog was removed.
Before the dogs were introduced, the children had an average 58 percent spike in their cortisol levels upon awakening; with the dog in the house, the average morning increase was a mere 10 percent. When the dogs were removed, the morning increases rose again, at an average of 48 percent. Isn’t that incredible?!
A questionnaire offered additional confirmation of the dog’s therapeutic effects. According to the parents, problematic behaviors dropped from an average of 33 to an average of 25 – a statistically significant 25 percent.
What kind of dogs were used in the studies?
The dogs used in the study were all SSig dogs, or Sensory Signal Dogs, and had been highly trained to work with autistic children. Not only can SSig dogs identify repetitive behaviors and signal the child to stop, they can also contain a child at risk of running off, gently halt self-harming behaviors and help neutralize tantrums and meltdowns.
The dog can also alert the child to important sensory stimuli – such as a fire alarm or smoke detector – that require a response.
Yet another study, published in 2010 in American Journal of Public Health, highlighted the effect of dog ownership on children in general. The study showed that children who own dogs have higher levels of light, moderate and vigorous physical activity than children who don’t – with an epidemic of childhood obesity sweeping the country, this benefit of dog ownership should not be overlooked.
What kind of dog is best for my child?
The decision to get a dog for a child with ASD is a serious one. To merely obtain a dog, at random, for the purposes of helping an autistic child is unfair to both dog and child, and could backfire. First of all, you must be sure that your child really wants a dog, and that he is capable of being consistently gentle with the animal. And, you must be prepared to supervise the interactions between child and dog.
Remember, you are making a lifetime commitment to a living being. A dog can easily cost $700 a year in food and basic veterinary care alone, and many can live as long as 16 years. Plus, if you opt for a specially-trained SSig dog, the expense can be much more – although some organizations do offer grants.
When it comes to picking the ‘right dog’, experts point to the importance of temperament testing to determine the dog’s innate personality. The ideal companion dog for an autistic child will be calm, tolerant, and affectionate.
Because autistic children can be extremely sensitive to sounds and textures, avoid getting an extremely loud, nervous or “yappy” dog. A dog with short, silky or soft fur – such as a golden retriever or Labrador – may be more appealing to your child than a breed with coarse or wiry fur, such as an Airedale.
Once you’ve identified some prospective dogs with the requisite easy-going dispositions, allow your child to be involved in the decision. Often, he will know exactly what qualities he would like.
If dogs were drugs, Big Pharma would never stop crowing about their efficacy, safety and therapeutic value for children with ASD. There seems to be little room for doubt: the loving bond between an ASD child and his companion or service dog can help the child better connect with the world around him.
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