Published by Communications and Public Affairs (519) 824-4120, Ext. 56982 or 53338
December 08, 2003
Assistance dogs help autistic children emotionally, says U of G prof
Pairing autistic children with assistance dogs can encourage the children to be more affectionate and more connected to their world, according to new University of Guelph research.
Through detailed surveys, video footage analysis and interviews, population medicine professor Cindy Adams is exploring the science behind the unique human-animal bond that develops between autistic children and their canine companions.
Adams is observing autistic children matched with dogs from National Service Dogs, a national non-profit assistance dogs training centre. After the organization saw an increased demand for dogs to be paired with autistic children, they asked Adams to investigate the value of this new role for assistance dogs.
"People have trouble appreciating that a dog could have such an impact on a child's life," said Adams. "There is a strong desire to have tangible confirmation that these animals are actually making a difference."
Autism, one of the most common developmental disabilities, affects the typical development of the brain in the areas of social interaction and communication skills. Children and adults with autism typically have difficulties in verbal and non-verbal communication, social interactions, and leisure or play activities. They find it hard to communicate with others and relate to the outside world.
"A powerful connection develops between the kids and the dogs," said Adams. "The simple presence of these dogs encourages the children to show more affection towards others." To analyze the changes in the children's behaviour, Adams and master's student Kristen Burrows are observing both families who have had dogs for a few months and families who have just received the assistance dogs. "We're looking at behaviourial indicators, including how often the autistic children touch the dog, laugh and make connections with others," she said.
She's also looking at the effects on the child's self-esteem and success in school, as well as changes that occur within the family, such as their stress level, number of social outings and frequencies of dinners out. "One of the families that received an assistance dog is going to Disneyland this Christmas," said Adams. "That's something they weren't even able to consider for 12 years before getting the dog. It must be quite a liberating experience."
The dogs' training focuses on protecting the children they're paired with — from keeping them from running into traffic to preventing self-inflicted injuries. The dog works for the autistic child, but takes commands from a parent. In public, assistance dogs inevitably attract interest from others. Paired with autistic children, these dogs increase community awareness and minimize the stigma surrounding autism.
Adams hopes to eventually collaborate with animal behaviourists and experts in autism to delve further into the impact of pairing assistance dogs with autistic children. The research is being sponsored by National Service Dogs. For more information about National Service Dogs, visit www.nsd.on.ca.
"There is the potential for many facets of this unique relationship to be examined," she said. "Of the work we do with people and animals, this is the purest way to look at the human-animal bond. I feel very honoured to be involved in this project."
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