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Debra Buttram

The effects of AAT on the interaction abilities of children with autism

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The effects of Animal Assisted Therapy (AAT) on the interaction abilities of children with autism

Cecilia Carenzi1, Marcello Galimberti2, Debra Buttram2, Emanuela Prato Previde1
1Istituto di Psicologia – Università degli Studi di Milano, via Tommaso Pini 1 – 20134 Milano, Italy
2AIUCA, Via IV Novembre 26, 23842, Bosisio Parini (LC), Italy, A.I.U.C.A. - Associazione Italiana Uso Cani d'Assistenza, aiuca@aiuca.org

From Boris Levinson’s accidental discovery that the presence of an animal can be positive for problematic children, further studies have lead to different types of intervention, including Animal Assisted Therapy and Activities.

Although there is increasing interest regarding this argument, also noted in Italian institutions, research conducted with rigorous methodology finalized to understand the mechanisms of AAT are extremely limited.

Aim of this research was to asses the effects of AAT on children affected by Pervasive Development Disorder (PDD), developing an observational methodology to test the efficacy of AAT intervention.

The study was conducted between January- and June of 2004. 5 children (4 males,1 female) ranging from 3-5 years of age, all diagnosed with PDD (F84.0 according to the system of classification ICD10) participated in the study. Each child was involved in the weekly individual sessions in which the actors were the child, the female psychologist and one Pet Partners® team (one 6-year old male dog/female handler and one 3-year old female dog/male handler, according to the child’s needs identified by the treatment equipe). Observations were carried out in a medium-sized room, containing a mat, some equipment for playing with and taking care of the dog and a hidden videocamera for behaviour recording.
A pre test session was conducted to obtain a base-line evaluation and to collect data about specific area of interest; post test session was carried out at the end of the programme to evaluate the effect of the programme and mainly of the interaction with the dog.

Pre test and post test sessions were structured ad hoc and consisted of a period of interaction without dog presence, followed by a period of interaction with dog presence. Each session consisted of an interaction game and the reproduction of an unfamiliar action demonstrated by the psychologist.

The behaviour of each child was scored from videotapes, and the behaviour of interest for autistic children were recorded in terms of frequency and/or duration. A single case methodology was utilised.

From the analysis of all the encounters, a clear trend in children behaviour was not evidenced, due to the fact that each encounter had peculiar characteristics. We found that the dog’s presence had positive effects on:
§ the children’s capacity for interaction;
§ the duration of the interactions, which was longer in dog’s presence;
§ the ability to complete actions requested by the psychologist.

The overall differences between pre-test and post-test sessions were limited; however differences between the encounters in presence of the dog and those in absence of the dog were evidenced.
Further research is needed to obtain a deeper understanding of the effects of dog presence on autistic children behaviour.
IAHAIO 11th International Conference (Tokyo, 6-9 October 2007)

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