Some children with autism spectrum disorder struggle with anxiety or have difficulty communicating in certain social situations. Researchers have studied various interventions to help alleviate those struggles, including therapy dogs, often cited as a popular social catalyst or a stress reliever for children with autism.
But a study at the University of Missouri (MU) found that while some children with autism enjoy interacting with dogs, they are not preferred by all children with autism. The finding highlights the importance of identifying individual children’s preferences before investing heavily in an intervention, such as a therapy dog, that might not be in a child’s best interest.
Emma Keicher, an applied behavior analyst at the MU Thompson Center for Autism and Neurodevelopment, collaborated with former MU faculty member and primary investigator Casey Clay, to see if children with autism preferred to interact with Rhett, a black Labrador retriever who served as the Thompson Center’s facility therapy dog.
In the study, boys with autism between the ages of four and nine were told that if they completed certain tasks, their reward would be a choice to play with Rhett or some other form of entertainment, such as playing with various toys.
The researchers found that after completing the tasks, some boys enjoyed interacting with Rhett far more than playing with the toys, while some were indifferent toward the dog and mainly played with the toys, and others did not want to interact with the dog at all.
“People often assume that dogs are positive reinforcers for kids with autism, and while that may be true for some kids, the research shows that not all kids with autism spectrum disorder respond favorably to dogs,” Keicher said.
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