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Needs assessment

Memorial researchers conducting survey on animal-assisted therapies for families of children with autism


By Kelly Foss

Memorial researchers are conducting a needs assessment on animal-assisted therapies for families of children with autism spectrum disorder.

From left are Dr. Morag Ryan and Dr. Carolyn Walsh with their canine friends.
Photo: Rich Blenkinsopp

Dr. Morag Ryan (B.Sc.(Hons.)’11, M.Sc.’15, MD’19) is a family medicine resident at Memorial University.

Dr. Carolyn Walsh (B.Sc.(Hons.)’91, PhD’01 is deputy head and associate professor with the Department of Psychology in the Faculty of Science.

The pair first met when Dr. Ryan was a psychology undergraduate student. She eventually completed a master’s on dog behaviour with Dr. Walsh before going on to become a family doctor.

Behavioural intervention

Dr. Ryan says it was “very serendipitous” how the project got started.

“Family medicine residents do a research project as part of our graduate requirements and Carolyn invited me to a research exchange group meeting, hosted by the Newfoundland and Labrador Centre for Applied Health Research,” she said.

“It focused on human-animal interactions and it was a perfect marriage of my interests in medical intervention and using animal-assisted therapies for behavioural intervention.”

Dr. Ryan says animal-assisted therapy can help children gain confidence and socialization skills.
Photo: Rich Blenkinsopp

The meeting led the two researchers to create a survey looking at how people use animal-assisted therapies, which could include pet/service animal ownership or equine therapy programs, for children with autism spectrum disorders.

The survey considers aspects such as what types of therapies are being used, the level of interest in them and other therapies and the barriers preventing families from accessing them.

“Research is limited, but we do have evidence to suggest animal-assisted therapy can help children gain confidence and socialization skills,” said Dr. Ryan. “This can help them mitigate co-morbid conditions such as depression and anxiety, while encouraging social exploration in general.”

She points out, though, that autism is a spectrum: something that is helpful for one child may not work across the board.

She says a small cohort of families find the therapies don’t have any efficacy because of their child’s sensory aversion to loud noises or tactile sensations.

“This can contribute to the overall experience a child may have.”

Drs. Walsh and Ryan on steps on the St. John's campus with two small dogs
The researchers are currently seeking survey participants.
Photo: Rich Blenkinsopp

Early survey results

The researchers are still seeking survey participants. However, the results they’ve collected so far have generated some interesting data.

“The vast majority of individuals desire the use of animal-assisted therapies, but only a few are actually having interactions within a structured model,” said Dr. Ryan.

“Many report barriers, including financial, to accessing service animals, whether they be autism-specific or simply the emotional support variety. Some were denied because they were told their child didn’t have an “intellectual” disability.”

“I think we can make a real contribution to the scientific evaluation of how and why these therapies work, and how to improve them.” — Dr. Carolyn Walsh

She says that while the Autism Society of Newfoundland and Labrador is supportive, many families still struggle for resources because they need a formal diagnosis to access many services, and getting a diagnosis is challenging.

One unexpected, but welcome, contribution is the personal comments being shared by families.

“Some are going in-depth about their experiences and what improvements they’ve seen in their child,” said Dr. Ryan. “It’s giving us a rich and wonderful narrative text which we have an honours psychology student doing a qualitative analysis on for her thesis.”

Scientific evaluation

Ultimately, they’d like to see provincial resources put into helping facilitate the acquisition of therapy animals and to fund specific programs.

Dr. Carolyn Walsh with a small dog
Dr. Carolyn Walsh says rigorous scientific evaluation is a critical part of moving forward with animal-assisted therapies.
Photo: Rich Blenkinsopp

Dr. Walsh says animal-assisted therapy has “really bloomed” in the last 15 years or so.

“My interest as a researcher, as opposed to a clinician, is that I think we can make a real contribution to the scientific evaluation of how and why these therapies work, and how to improve them,” she said.

“This information could be used to help establish funded programs across the province for those who wish to access them, but in a way that includes rigorous scientific evaluation, which is a critical part of moving forward with these types of therapies.”

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