Physiological Wellness Effects of Animal-Assisted Activities in Children with Autism Spectrum Disorder in a Specialized Psychiatric Hospital Program

Saturday, May 13, 2017: 12:00 PM-1:40 PM
Golden Gate Ballroom (Marriott Marquis Hotel)
K. A. Willar1, Z. Pan2, B. Dechant2, S. Harmeling1, M. Germone1, N. Guerin3 and R. Gabriels1, (1)Children's Hospital Colorado, Aurora, CO, (2)University of Colorado Denver, Aurora, CO, (3)Purdue University, West Lafayette, IN
Background: Children with ASD are at higher risk for developing co-existing mental health conditions (Szatmari & McConnell, 2011) and consequently experiencing psychiatric hospitalization, compared to the general pediatric population (Kalb et al., 2012). However, hospital environments can be exceptionally stressful for this population (Siegel & Gabriels, 2014), given their social-communication deficits, ineffective emotional regulation skills and heightened physiological arousal (Mazefsky & White, 2014; Bellini, 2006). While the use of animal-assisted activities (AAA) show potential for various improvements in children with ASD in community settings (Gabriels et al., 2015; O’Haire et al., 2013; O’Haire, In Press), these “stress-reducing” and “social-buffering” (Serpell, 2000) benefits have not yet been studied within a psychiatric hospital setting for youth with ASD.

Objectives: Evaluate whether an AAA with canines can lead to reduced physiological arousal and improvements in social-communication as well as aberrant behaviors in children and adolescents diagnosed with ASD in a specialized psychiatric hospital setting.

Methods: Participants were recruited from the Neuropsychiatric Special Care (NSC) program’s inpatient and/or partial day-treatment program. Prior to study participation, baseline demographic measures were acquired from caregivers and participants’ ASD diagnosis was confirmed. Participants experienced two, randomly assigned 35-minute sessions (AAA and Control Condition) with a minimum two-day washout period between groups. Each session included a baseline 20-minute social skills group immediately followed by a 10 minute experimental or control condition. The AAA condition introduced a canine and volunteer handler for free interaction time while the control condition introduced a novel toy and a volunteer for free interaction. Participants’ physiological arousal was continuously assessed throughout all conditions via the Empatica E-4 wristbands (Empatica Inc. 2014). All sessions were videotaped for behavioral coding using the Observation of Human Animal Interaction for Research – Modified, v.1 (OHAIRE-M1; O’Haire, Gabriels, Germone (unpublished manual).

Results: Baseline demographics: age (M=11.1 years, SD=3.7), 82.4% male, Aberrant Behavior Checklist (ABC)-Irritability subscale (N=28; M=26.3, SD=9.1), Aberrant Behavior Checklist (ABC)-Hyperactivity (N=28; M=32.7, SD=21.8), Leiter-3 NVIQ (N=23; M=92.1, SD=24.1), ADOS-2 comparison score (N=22; M=7.1, SD=2.7) and 86.4% (N=22) have a co-existing psychiatric diagnosis. Due to the timeline of this study, planned analyses will begin in January 2017. Between two conditions analyses will include 1) changes in electrodermal activity and 2) changes in behavioral coding data.

Conclusions: This study is expected to demonstrate that children with ASD show reduced physiological arousal in the presence of canines, compared to a control condition in the context of a specialized psychiatric care hospital unit. Additionally, behavioral data is expected to display improved social communication and reduced aberrant behaviors when in the presence of a canine. While canines are commonly enlisted in hospital settings to promote a positive patient experience, there has been minimal empirical research evaluating potential outcomes of this type of activity in general. This study is the first to provide data regarding the wellness and physiological effects of the human-animal bond for children with ASD in hospital settings.