Dogs Best Reward For Kids with Autism

dogs kids with autism

Bring in the dogs! Texas Tech University behavioral analyst Alexandra Protopopova reports that allowing children with autism to interact with therapy dogs as a reward for completing tasks is more effective than offering them a toy or other type of reward.

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Why kids with autism respond to therapy dogs

According to Protopopova, offering autistic children access to therapy dogs rather than objects such as an iPad or toy works for at least two reasons:

  • While kids can become bored with an object over time, they can grow fond of or attached to a dog emotionally, so they look forward to their next interaction and thus are more prone to complete their tasks
  • Dog tend to reduce stress. “By mediating that stress level, the dogs may improve learning and potentially improve other outcome as well as being a reward for the child doing work.”

How the research was done

Protopopova and her team conducted two separate experiments. In one, they measured stress responses from autistic children in their saliva. Levels of the stress hormone, cortisol, were identified to determine students’ stress levels associated with their anticipated interaction with the dogs.

In the second experiment, the students were observed while they performed tasks with which they were familiar. Several controlled situations were created involving rewards; namely:

  • Children received only praise for their work
  • Children received inanimate leisure objects, such as toys or iPads
  • Children were allowed to interact with a therapy dog only after they completed their task
  • Therapy dogs were in the room (but not interacting with the kids) the entire time the children worked to complete their task

Here’s what the researchers found:

  • The scenario in which children were rewarded with spending time with the therapy dog after completing the task was the most effective
  • The next most effective approach was when children were given an inanimate reward
  • The two least effective scenarios were when no reward was given and when the dog was in the room but not allowed to interact

What the study means

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While this study looked at one-time exposures to the dogs, the researchers are now gathering data on whether prolonged exposure (over four to nine months) to therapy dogs as a reward will continue to provide the same results. “We wanted to see how all these preferences for inanimate objects or activities changed,” explained Protopopova.

Although the researchers have not yet collected all of their data, they are not seeing as much attachment to the dogs as they had hypothesized. However, the study design (single-subject) allows the researchers to better identify each individual child’s needs and so which type of reward is most effective for each child.

“Instead of a group design and us concluding that the average child would benefit from some procedure, which is not really that meaningful to individual families, we can give each family specific answers whether their child would or would not benefit from a dog.” Therefore this approach, with further data, could help families determine whether they should invest in a therapy dog for their autistic child or follow other approaches.

Source
Texas Tech University. Can therapy dogs assist in motivating children on the autism spectrum? 2016 Oct 27

Image courtesy of Pixabay

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