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What a Dog Can Do: Children with Autism and Therapy Dogs in Social Interaction

What a Dog Can Do: Children with Autism and Therapy Dogs in Social Interaction

For almost 50 years specially trained dogs have been used in clinical and family settings to facilitate how children with autism engage in social interaction and participate in everyday activities. Yet little theoretical grounding and empirical study of this socioclinical phenomenon has been offered by social science. This article draws on interdisciplinary scholarship to situate the study of the therapeutic use of dogs for children and teens with autism. Two case studies of service and therapy dogs’ mediating social engagement of children with autism in relationships, interactions, and activities illustrate how dogs support children’s communication, their experience of emotional connection with others, and their participation in everyday life. Theorizing this process enriches approaches to sociality in psychological anthropology. [animal-assisted therapy, autism, engagement, sociality, intersubjectivity]

“She helps me, she calms me down, she lets me know she’s there when I’m about to have a meltdown.” Anybody who has autism, anybody in the world would just benefit from this.

“She’s just like a healing dog.” FParker Weishaar, an 11-year-old boy diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome, in an interview with CBS News Of course they had a nurse. (This) nurse was a prim Newfoundland dog called Nana. . . . Of course her kennel was in the nursery. FJ. M. Barrie, Peter Pan and Wendy, 1911.

In an article ‘‘Finding My Son at the Zoo,’’ Thomas Fields-Meyer (2007) writes about regularly visiting the Los Angeles zoo with his son Ezra, who is diagnosed with autism. Watching a new side of his son come to life in the presence of animals, Fields-Meyer describes the transformation: a boy who is ordinarily a hurricane of motion becomes a calm, happy, and engaged 11-year-old able to carry a conversation while watching the animals in the zoo exhibits. The question whether such an affinity to animals is shared by many individuals with autism remains open. For those who do, however, it presents an opportunity to actively restructure their social world in a way that supports their communication; and to extend the boundaries of culturally normative sociality to include their ways of being social (e.g., Grandin and Johnson 2005, 2009; Isaacson 2009; Pavlides 2008; Prince this issue; Prince-Hughes 2004). This article considers a part of this picture. It examines the transformative power that specially trained dogs seem to hold for some children with autism and their families. It draws on interdisciplinary scholarship in anthropology, occupational science, sociology, psychologyphilosophy, ethology and consciousness studies to elucidate what a dog can do to generate an interactional ecological niche where individuals with autism are able to communicate better and to participate in everyday activities more fully.

Author: Olga Solomon – Journal for the Society of Psychological Anthropology


To read this stude in its entirety, please visit: https://www.uclahealth.org/pac/Workfiles/PAC/ChildrenW.AutismAndTherapyDogs_Solomon.pdf

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