The long-term objective of the proposed research is to identify Human-Animal Interaction strategies to improve the social and emotional development of children with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) and their typically developing (TD) peers. The goal of this particular project is to empirically evaluate the therapeutic use of animals in schools through an Animal-Assisted Intervention (AAI) in inclusion classrooms.
The specific aims are to study the effect of AAI on social and emotional reciprocity (Aim 1), social networks (Aim 2), and physiological indicators of stress (Aim 3) in children with ASD and their TD peers. Background and Significance. For children with ASD, the school-age years are particularly challenging because of their diagnostic impairments in social interaction and communication, which often lead to rejection and victimization by peers. These negative peer relationships are associated with psychological and physiological stress and anxiety, and problem behaviors. Developing an innovative and effective therapeutic strategy for children with ASD in inclusion classrooms is an important research priority, particularly since one of the main avenues of intervention for children with ASD is through the education system. Unfortunately, the majority of educational institutions lack the time, manpower and resources to effectively assist children with ASD. Theorists and clinical practitioners who work with ASD have proposed that one viable addition to current practices may be AAI in the classroom, which requires minimal funds for animal maintenance and can be facilitated by a non- specialist volunteer or teacher. Animals provide a unique, multi- sensory stimulus that captures children's attention and provides opportunities for empathic non-verbal communication. Animals also act as anxiolytic stress-reducers, which may help calm children with ASD in the classroom. Finally, in a group-based AAI, children with ASD are provided opportunities for peer bonding over a common interest/activity. The purpose of the proposed study is to assess AAI in the classroom, which may provide a relatively simple and cost-effective means of helping educational institutions to help their growing number of students with ASD. Design. Participants will include 64 children aged 5-12. A randomized-control design will be used to examine the impact of a live animal versus an electronic animal in the context of a small group, bi-weekly social skills intervention. Baseline to Intervention (A or B) design will be used, whereby each participant group (one child with ASD and one TD peer from the same classroom) will experience 8 weeks of no intervention (Baseline) followed by random assignment to either: (A) an AAI with a live animal or (B) a control intervention with an electronic animal. A pre-test, post-test design will be used, whereby participants will be assessed at three time points: (1) pre-baseline, (2) post-baseline/pre-intervention, and (3) post-intervention. Multi-modal assessments of outcomes for each specific aim will include live and video-recorded observation by blind raters, informant- report questionnaires, and non-invasive physiological assessments.
The proposed study will empirically evaluate the therapeutic use of animals in schools for children with autism spectrum disorder and their typically developing peers in inclusion classrooms. By using a classroom- based model, it has the potential to influence the health and development of many children with a small number of resources. It will examine outcomes related to their social and emotional development, including social and emotional reciprocity (Aim 1) social networks (Aim 2), and physiological indicators of stress (Aim 3).
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