Autistic boy and his dog | Photo credit: RMC42, Shutterstock

Autism & Animal-Assisted Therapy

As WellBeing International continues to explore children’s well-being, this article explores the possibility of an approach that may enrich communication with and the life experience of an autistic child1.

As previously reported, T. Berry Brazelton, American pediatrician and author of numerous popular infant development and child-care books, noted during a 1989 plenary talk at an international human-animal bond conference in Monaco that the presence of a pet in a family is one of the best predictors that a child will experience healthy cognitive and affective development. His comment might have particular relevance for parents of children diagnosed with autism. In an article exploring the impact of companion animals on the behavior of autistic children, Dr. Olga Solomon describes a father who noticed how his son calmed down and paid prolonged and unusual attention when taken on visits to the local zoo. She further attributed her interest in the interaction between children diagnosed with autism and animals to her experience while playing with her dog in a city park.

Dr. Solomon was throwing a frisbee in the park for her border collie, who, at one point, carefully placed the retrieved frisbee at the feet of a 5-year-old girl. The girl picked up the frisbee, threw it for the collie, and began to laugh. The dog repeated the game. Solomon perceived this as an ordinary event until the girl’s father approached her and, with tears in his eyes, asked her to sell him the dog for any price. He commented that his autistic daughter had never played with anyone before. This experience stayed with her. Six years later, her study of autism and her experience with dogs led her to examine whether there might be something about canine behavior and sociability that engages children with autism in a way that parents and peers cannot.

The article from her examination of this issue was published in 2010 and included two case studies describing how dogs mediated the social engagement of autistic children. She notes that when dogs enter the lives of children with autism (or other at-risk humans such as American soldiers in active conflict zones), they help the humans accomplish a new kind of “autobiographical self.” Recognizing animals as potential partners in communication was a feature of Boris Levinson’s pioneering work on the human-animal bond and creating communication and therapeutic opportunities for children with autism in the middle of the 20th century. Levinson wrote that “when the child plays with the dog,” the child establishes their world and its boundaries. The therapist can enter a corner of the child’s world where the children feel secure.

Solomon’s study involved five autistic children (four boys and one girl – approximately 80% of autistic children are boys). ChildTwo was one of the boys who, at three years of age, was still not speaking and, in his mother’s words, was “out of control.” Shortly before his fourth birthday, he was diagnosed as autistic. When ChildTwo was thirteen, his mother emailed friends and family asking for recommendations for an autism service dog. ChildTwo had been asked by his teacher if he had a dog. He responded in the affirmative and elaborated further that the dog was “black and white.” When the teacher asked his mother about the dog, she did not know what to think. The family did not have a black and white dog or a dog of any kind and had no intention of getting one. But ChildTwo persisted in claiming that he had a black and white dog. Finally, the mother sent out her email.

At about the same time, the animal trainer involved in the autism project had an unexpected addition to her family – a six-month-old black and white Springer Spaniel named Simon whose elderly owner had just lost his wife and had determined that he could not keep the puppy. Solomon forwarded the mother’s email to the animal trainer, who immediately thought of training Simon to be a service dog for the autistic child. When ChildTwo’s mother called the animal trainer, her first question was about the dog’s color. When the trainer replied that the dog was black and white, there was a short silence on the phone, and then the mother asked when they could come!

As the reader might expect, Simon went home to be ChildTwo’s service dog later that year. The addition of Simon to the family had an immediate and dramatic effect on the family and ChildTwo, whose life took on a richness that was not present before the advent of Simon. However, as Solomon notes, the story has a metaphysical quality. ChildTwo’s insistence willed the black and white dog into existence and transformed his interactions with family members. The story of Simon spread quickly across the parent advocacy community as further evidence that autistic children have extraordinary abilities.

Solomon received a Christmas card from ChildTwo’s family that year, wishing her a Happy White (and Black) Christmas. The card portrayed five smiling people, all dressed in black and white clothes, sitting on the steps of their house. ChildTwo’s hand rested on Simon’s back. Having the dog in the family restructured ChildTwo’s interaction with the world around him and enabled much fuller participation in the family’s life and school.

In her concluding paragraph, Solomon notes that the research on the “specific dynamics of this process and the contributions of all participants, human and canine,” holds the potential to advance not only a greater understanding of autism but also a theory of sociality in psychological anthropology. There are many claims in the popular media about the benefits of the human-animal bond for human health and well-being. However, the research results of possible benefits are very mixed. The dramatic case studies reported by Dr. Solomon are relatively rare in the academic literature on human-animal interactions. However, such case studies indicate something special occurs between humans and animals. WellBeing International calls for more innovative and methodologically rigorous research into human-dog interactions and their potential to advance human health and well-being.


Dr. Olga Solomon is in the Division of Occupational Science and Occupational Therapy at the University of Southern California, Los Angeles. Those interested in further information on the use of therapy animals for autistic children are referred to a recent review by Dr. M.E. O’Haire and her colleagues at Purdue University and to the books by Dr. Temple Grandin, a remarkable scholar who was only diagnosed as autistic when she was an adult.

Note 1. Although WBI has used Identity-First Language rather than Person-First Language to refer to autistic children, this choice was deemed appropriate for this newsletter context and its audience. Our selection of language may vary based on publication type and audience. However, writing respectfully is foremost in our consideration. Please refer to “Writing Respectfully: Person-First and Identity-First Language” for more information.

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