Animal Therapy Helps Children with Autism

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Animals often play a major role in the lives of those who are disabled or seriously ill. They offer comfort, help to relieve stress and give individuals who find it difficult to love a chance to bond with another living soul. For those with autism, befriending and caring for a pet reduces sensory issues, lessens inappropriate behaviors and encourages them to interact and connect socially with others.

Dogs Normalize Cortisol Levels

While rolling in the grass with a puppy, feeding and watering a hamster or riding a horse can enrich the lives of those who have physical and emotional challenges, one of the special miracles that result from bonding with a pet dog is its potential to lessen physical pain, lower blood pressure and relieve anxiety. Although scientists have yet to figure out exactly why, studies have shown that dogs have an unusual ability to reduce cortisol levels in children with autism.

Cortisol is an anti-stress hormone the body releases to help an individual deal with potentially threatening situations. Since individuals with autism find family and social situations challenging, their constant frustration and fears keep cortisol levels elevated. Potential threats do not have to be real. As long as autistic children have sensory overload, obsess over things they don’t like, worry about what might happen or find it difficult to control their excitement, their body will secrete cortisol to cope with the problem. If one problem runs into another, cortisol never has time to return to normal levels.

When cortisol is released, many important body functions shut down in order to conserve the energy needed to handle those essential to life. The endocrine system, immune system and digestive tract are a few of the body functions normally put on hold until all danger has passed. When cortisol levels stay elevated, these systems are never able to function correctly. Animal therapy gives children with autism an opportunity to return to normal cortisol cycles. That normality improves blood glucose regulation, insulin levels, gastrointestinal issues and strengthens the immune system. It also teaches autistic children how to bond and correctly form social attachments.

Benefits of Service Dogs

While traditional autism interventions include speech-language pathology, occupational therapy to help a child deal with sensory issues and behavior modification techniques, alternative treatments such as service dogs have had amazing results. Dogs have miraculous powers when it comes to getting autistic children to begin interacting with their environment, and service dogs specifically trained to work with autistic children can be particularly beneficial in the following:

  • lowering anxiety
  • keeping autistic children from hurting themselves
  • alerting one of the parents if the child wanders
  • helping with socialization

While most families that have been touched by autism find it difficult to come up with the funds needed to purchase a service dog, many families are beginning to design their own home therapy programs.

Animal-Assisted Therapy Works

Any breed can be a therapy dog. The important thing is the dog’s individual character. Since it’s better for pet and child to grow up together, a confident dog works best. If too dominant or passive, the animal won’t have the same ability to touch the child’s life. Once the right dog is found, changes may come slowly. Autistic children have to bond with the dog, and bonding for those with autism often requires shared interests. What initially looks like a puppy just following the child around, eventually begins to show signs of life. With time, autistic children become more interactive, calm and display fewer inappropriate and stress-related behaviors. More importantly, dogs teach an autistic child to love.

Article written by Jet Russell who blogs for a self storage company. Jet is a dog lover and has owned many dogs in his life. He doesn’t get people that don’t like dogs, becuase well, how could you not!