The Positive Effects of Assistance Dogs in Families of Children and Adolescents with ASD

Poster Presentation
Friday, May 11, 2018: 11:30 AM-1:30 PM
Hall Grote Zaal (de Doelen ICC Rotterdam)
V. Simard1, M. A. Aubry-Guzzi1, I. Chapleau1, M. Carrier1, F. Zerrouki1, M. M. Blouin1 and N. Champagne2, (1)Universite de Sherbrooke, Longueuil, QC, Canada, (2)Mira Foundation, Sainte-Madeleine, QC, Canada
Background: Sleep disorders are highly prevalent among children and adolescents with an autism spectrum disorder (ASD). Two studies (Fecteau et al., 2017; Viau et al., 2010) have reported the effect of assistance dogs on the cortisol awakening response of children with ASD and of their parents. They have explained their findings by an effect of the dog on sleep, although they did not measure this variable.

Objectives: To assess the effect of well-trained assistance dogs on 1) sleep of the child/adolescent with ASD and of their parents, and on 2) autonomy and 3) sensory modulation of the child/adolescent.

Methods: This study follows a pre-test/post-test pre-experimental design. Thirteen families with a child/adolescent with ASD (5 to 16 years old; 9 boys) participated in two home visits, the first within one month of receiving the assistance dog (pre-test) and the second, two months after it’s arrival (post-test). The sleep of the child/adolescent was assessed using both actigraphy (wrist-worn accelerometer) and mother-reported sleep diary. The sleep of parents was assessed using self-reported sleep diaries. All sleep measures were taken on five consecutive 24-hour periods. Autonomy was assessed with the corresponding subscale of the ABAS-II (Harrison & Oakland, 2003), and sensory modulation, with the Sensory Profile (Dunn, 1999). All measures were taken at pre-test and post-test. One week after each visit, a research assistant collected at home the actigraph, and the completed sleep diaries and questionnaires.

Results: Most (63.6%) children and adolescents were sleeping with the dog in their room every night, and 45.5% were even bed-sharing every night. Sleep of the child/adolescent and of the father did not significantly improve after the dog’s arrival. However, self-reported nighttime sleep duration of the mother improved between pre-test (M=6.36±.80 hours) and post-test (M=7.01±.64 hours; F(1, 12)=5.56, p=.036), representing a large effect size (ɳ2=.32). A shorter pre-test sleep duration of the mother was associated with a greater increase in this parameter between time points (r(11)=-.79, p=.001). Autonomy of the child/adolescent also significantly improved after the dog’s arrival in the family (t(12)=-2.26, p=.045), a greater improvement in autonomy being associated with a greater proportion of nights of room-sharing (rs(11)=.75, p=.013) or bed-sharing (rs(11)=.69, p=.029) with the dog. Finally, the introduction of the assistance dog was associated with increased socio-emotional responsiveness (F(1, 12)=6.34, p=.03) and attention (F(1, 12)=7.93, p=.017) on the Sensory Profile, with large effect sizes (ɳ2=.37 and .42).

Conclusions: Results from this ongoing study provide preliminary evidence that an assistance dog, trained specifically for work with youngsters with ASD, may have several benefits. The dog’s arrival was associated with increased sleep duration of mothers, especially for those who were more sleep deprived. It also appears to benefit youngsters in their socio-emotional and everyday functioning. Moreover, a greater proximity of the child/adolescent with the dog (i.e., room-sharing) was associated with increased benefits in terms of gained autonomy, suggesting that the better the child-dog bonding, the better the outcome. The limited sample size may have prevented the finding of other clinically significant benefits of the assistance dog.