The Positive Effects of Animal Assisted Therapy for those with ASD

When Nicholas was a child, our dad would take him hiking every weekend for his joint compression therapy. During these hikes, there had been numerous incidents where dog owners had refused to leash their pets. Doing what dogs do, they would run away to greet random strangers. So every once in awhile, my brother would run into a dog that was violent to the point of causing him injury. Can you imagine an animal running towards you, jumping at you, and being unable to comprehend the dogs intentions? Consequently, those sequences of events are what instilled a fear of dogs into Nicholas that lasted for eight years.

From articles that I’ve read, exposure to animals has shown to be beneficial to the social and emotional development of children with autism. Spending time with pets can even help in building self-esteem. Unfortunately, our family never owned pets while growing up besides the occasional hamster or fish. They were concerned that having a dog around after those traumatic events would disrupt the peace in the household that our parents wanted to maintain as much as possible.

Throughout the years at his former day program, Nicholas interacted with handpicked, docile pups in a secure environment. He was able to feel safe without having to anticipate being jumped on or charged at. Steadily his nervousness towards dogs began to ease the more he spent time with them. While we were very pleased that he was able to overcome a childhood fear, we found that dogs are too rambunctious and agitate his sensory sensitivity towards certain noises. Dogs, as unconditionally loving and energetic as they are, are not for everyone.

Buddha and Slade

Nicholas likes having cats even though he is pretty nonchalant with them. Our cats Buddha and Slade have behaviors that are, for the most part, predictable to him and they don’t cause him any undue stress. Nor are they emotionally overwhelming or as loud as some dogs can be. Everyone is different but in Nicholas’ case, cats are the best kind of pets to have around.

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Storm (left) and Brooks (right)

At least once a week or as often as daily, our mom and Nicholas will go out to the park to feed apples and carrots to the local horses. When he started visiting them, he was a little intimidated by their large stature. Over time, he began to appreciate their calm and peaceful nature. He always anticipates his visits to the park.

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Storm and Brooks know Nicholas on sight and will always come running to him when they know he has food.

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Nicholas is always mindful to take turns and give each horse an equal amount of food.

We are fortunate to have local therapeutic equestrian farms meant specifically for those with intellectual, developmental, and physical disabilities. The most influential one in our area is Pegasus Farms out in Hartville, OH. Their mission is, “to maximize the potential of persons with disabilities to become independent, well-rounded, self-confident individuals by providing equine activities along with recreational, social, and vocational support”. They have a wide selection of horses with various distinct personalities and sizes meant to match specifically to the right person.

Exposing animals to those with disabilities in a safe environment can be very beneficial to their development, especially early on in childhood. We are eternally grateful that these programs are available to provide an atmosphere where people like Nicholas don’t have to be apprehensive and can enjoy the experience to its fullest.

-Natasha

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