How Guinea Pigs Can Help a Child with Autism

05 Oct

Guinea Pigs and AutismBy JAN HOFFMAN

Guinea pigs do not judge.

They do not bully. They are characteristically amiable, social and oh-so-tactile. They tuck comfortably into child-size laps and err on the side of the seriously cute.

When playing with guinea pigs at school, children with autism spectrum disorders are more eager to attend, display more interactive social behavior and become less anxious, according to a series of studies, the most recent of which was just published in Developmental Psychobiology.

In previous studies, researchers in Australia captured these results by surveying parents and teachers or asking independent observers to analyze videotapes of the children playing. In the new report, however, the researchers analyzed physiological data pointing to the animals’ calming effect on the children.

The children played with two guinea pigs in groups of three — one child who was on the spectrum and two typically developing peers. All 99 children in the study, ages 5 to 12, wore wrist bands that monitored their arousal levels, measuring electric charges that race through the skin.

Arousal levels can suggest whether a subject is feeling anxious or excited.

The first time that typically developing children played with the guinea pigs, they reported feeling happy and registered higher levels of arousal. The researchers speculate that the children were excited by the novelty of the animals.

Children with autism spectrum disorders also reported feeling elated, but the wrist band measurements suggested their arousal levels had declined. The animals seem to have lowered the children’s stress, the researchers concluded.

Geraldine Dawson, the director of the Duke Center for Autism and Brain Development, described the work as “very promising.” Autism, she said, is often associated with high levels of arousal and anxiety that interfere with social interaction.

This modest intervention, she said, could readily be adapted by teachers coping with a scarcity of resources.

“We don’t know what the mechanisms are,” Dr. Dawson said. “Maybe it’s easier to interact with others when you have a third object, rather than face-to-face interaction.”

Yet when children on the autism spectrum played with toys in the presence of the other two children, their levels remained elevated. “They found something about the animal itself that was helpful,” Dr. Dawson said.

The project began because the lead researcher, Marguerite E. O’Haire, now an assistant professor at the Center for the Human-Animal Bond at Purdue University, wondered whether there were measurable benefits to having animals in the classroom, a common practice.

Her studies unfolded from 2009 to 2012 in 15 schools in Brisbane, Australia, where the trend is to include children of all abilities in a classroom whenever possible. Over eight-week stretches, groups of three children were pulled out for twice weekly sessions to play with two guinea pigs.

The overall results, which included 64 children with spectrum disorders and 128 typically developing children, showed improved sociability for all children, according to surveys of parents and teachers.

The activities with guinea pigs were low-key and unscripted. The children could feed, pet, photograph, groom and draw the animals, and clean their cages. After eight weeks, said Dr. O’Haire, a research psychologist in human-animal interaction, many children, both typical and on the spectrum, described the guinea pig as “my best friend.”

“If you ask the children what the guinea pig is thinking,” Dr. O’Haire said, “a common answer would be, ‘That he loves me.’ ”

Children with autism, who have difficulty interacting socially, are vulnerable to being teased and excluded by mainstream peers. But after 16 sessions with guinea pigs, parents would tell Dr. O’Haire, “‘Now my child feels like she has friends she can sit with at school.’”

In the new skin conductance study, arousal levels in the groups were assessed with four tasks. First, the children read silently. Then, each had to read aloud to the others. Next, they played with toys.

Each time, the arousal levels of the children with autism became elevated. Being with the other two children, no matter the task, made them anxious.

But when the guinea pigs — antically chirping, squeaking, purring — were introduced, these children’s arousal levels dropped. Dr. O’Haire and her colleagues suggest that the animals may function as “social buffers” for these children, for whom social engagement is bewildering and taxing.

Many studies in the emerging field of human-animal interaction address the benefits of companion animals. But much of the work has been theoretical, or with small samples, or without a control group.

Hal Herzog, a psychology professor at Western Carolina University and author of “Some We Love, Some We Hate, Some We Eat,” about humans and animals, commended this study’s rigor. “They didn’t overextend their claims,” said Dr. Herzog, noting that the researchers were careful not to describe play with guinea pigs as a type of therapy.

Deborah Fein, an autism expert at the University of Connecticut, underscored that distinction. “People might think that if you lower the anxiety of these children, they’ll pick up social skills incidentally,” she said.

In fact, she said, they still need direct teaching of those skills. The presence of the guinea pigs would offer “a great ancillary treatment to practice those skills,” said Dr. Fein, a clinical neuropsychologist.

The animals could also be a means to introduce the children to empathy and responsibility. “There really is no downside to this intervention,” she said.


Related CE Courses for Mental Health Professionals

In Animal-Assisted Therapy (AAT) the human-animal bond is utilized to help meet therapeutic goals and reach individuals who are otherwise difficult to engage in verbal therapies. AAT is considered an emerging therapy at this time, and more research is needed to determine the effects and confirm the benefits. Nevertheless, there is a growing body of research and case studies that illustrate the considerable therapeutic potential of using animals in therapy. AAT has been associated with improving outcomes in four areas: autism-spectrum symptoms, medical difficulties, behavioral challenges, and emotional well-being. This course is designed to provide therapists, educators, and caregivers with the information and techniques needed to begin using the human-animal bond successfully to meet individual therapeutic goals. This presentation will focus exclusively on Animal Assisted Therapy and will not include information on other similar or related therapy.
The first section of this course traces the history of the diagnostic concept of Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), culminating in the revised criteria of the 2013 version of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, the DSM-5, with specific focus on the shift from five subtypes to a single spectrum diagnosis. It also aims to provide epidemiological prevalence estimates, identify factors that may play a role in causing ASD, and list the components of a core assessment battery. It also includes brief descriptions of some of the major intervention models that have some empirical support. Section two describes common GI problems and feeding difficulties in autism, exploring the empirical data and/or lack thereof regarding any links between GI disorders and autism. Sections on feeding difficulties offer interventions and behavior change techniques. A final section on nutritional considerations discusses evaluation of nutritional status, supplementation, and dietary modifications with an objective look at the science and theory behind a variety of nutrition interventions. Other theoretical interventions are also reviewed.
Teaching Healthy professional and personal relationships rely heavily on effective communication techniques and respectful conversational skills. Clinicians and other professionals who work with children and their families can benefit from adding to their repertoire by learning communication techniques that improve the quality of these relationships. The correct use of language can increase your young clients’ self-esteem, motivate children to learn, engage their willing cooperation, defuse power struggles, and teach conflict resolution skills. With this information, you will also be better prepared to manage difficult conversations. The purpose of this course is to teach clinicians effective and practical communication and conversational skills to use in the classroom and in one-on-one situations with young clients and their families.
Autism Movement Therapy® is an emerging therapy that combines movement and music with positive behavior support strategies to assist individuals with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) in meeting and achieving their speech and language, social and academic goals. Its purpose is to connect left and right hemisphere brain functioning by combining patterning, visual movement calculation, audile receptive processing, rhythm and sequencing into a “whole brain” cognitive thinking approach that can significantly improve behavioral, emotional, academic, social, and speech and language skills. This course is presented in two parts. Part 1 summarizes what is known about the brain functioning of individuals with ASD and illustrates how participation in dance, music and the arts can render the brain more amenable to learning social and language skills. Part 2 is a documentary created by Joanne Lara – Generation A: Portraits of Autism and the Arts, which spotlights – from a strikingly positive perspective – the challenges and accomplishments of eight individuals with ASD.

Professional Development Resources is approved by the American Psychological Association (APA) to sponsor continuing education for psychologists; the National Board of Certified Counselors (NBCC ACEP #5590); the Association of Social Work Boards (ASWB #1046, ACE Program); the California Board of Behavioral Sciences (#PCE1625); the Florida Boards of Clinical Social Work, Marriage & Family Therapy, and Mental Health Counseling (#BAP346) and Psychology & School Psychology (#50-1635); the Ohio Counselor, Social Worker & MFT Board (#RCST100501); the South Carolina Board of Professional Counselors & MFTs (#193); and the Texas Board of Examiners of Marriage & Family Therapists (#114) and State Board of Social Worker Examiners (#5678).

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Posted by on October 5, 2015 in Autism


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