A balloon with puzzles on it - autism awareness.

Emotional Support Animals and Autism: 10 Questions and Answers

7 min read

Animals have been successfully used in treating several mental health challenges. One of the most common mental disorders addressed with the help of emotional support animals is autism.

What exactly is autism?

AUTISM abbreviation.
A lot of symptoms and disorders - one animal therapy.

Also known as ASD or Autism Spectrum Disorder, this condition is comprised of many complex brain disorders with a large range of symptoms. Most autistic individuals do not experience ASD in the exact same way, nor exhibit the same symptoms as others. Some of the challenges that these individuals deal with include poor social skills and difficulties with expressing verbal and nonverbal communication.

Most of the triggers for the above symptoms come from environmental overstimulation, like loud noises, overcrowded spaces, or bright lights. In these cases, autistic individuals tend to externally manifest their internal struggles through a range of behaviors. These can include innocent behaviors like a lack of interest in specific topics or moodiness, as well as some that are harder to handle, from uncontrollable, repetitive behaviors (rocking, pacing, humming, etc.) all the way to epileptic seizures.

The Role of Emotional Support Animals (ESA) in Autism Therapy

A girls is standing near the horse.
The role of animals cannot be overestimated when treating autism disorders.

Here are 10 frequently asked questions and answers.

1. What are some of the most popular animals used for supporting autistic individuals?

Many animals have been used in various therapies, including cats, rabbits, guinea pigs, parrots, etc. They may look like cute toys, but their assistance is priceless when it comes to a person’s mental wellbeing. However, the most popular ones used specifically for autism have been horses, dolphins, and dogs. These have also been the most studied types of therapies.

2. Why are ESA so popular with mental health therapies?

Some of the reasons for using animals in therapies of mentally-challenged individuals include lower costs, providing a risk-free, judgment-free environment for the participant and helping with multiple other common challenges like loneliness, stress, and anxiety. These animals can also help directionally-challenged individuals to find their way, as well as individuals with motor skills challenges to properly function and stay safe. It is a tough world out there and having a caring animal as your right-hand makes it much easier to navigate.

However, a person’s mental health is not the only aspect that ESA can help with. The list of benefits is long and solid; besides developing reciprocal affection and empathy, an individual also learns skills like caretaking and responsibility.

3. What other skills do autistic individuals gain from interacting with ESA?

Some of the biggest challenges that emotional support animals can help with are interpersonal skills. Yes, you read that right…inter-PERSONAL, as in person to person. How can that be? Well, since animals can only use nonverbal communication methods, an individual has to learn how to read their facial expressions and gestures. Based on such “tells,” a person can deduct the animal’s needs and wants, which is a good communication skills practice.

Some other interpersonal skills that these animals are quite good at teaching include:

  • Volunteering
  • Sharing
  • Teamwork
  • Cooperation
  • Negotiation
  • Acceptance
  • Trust

Also, you may suspect this but it has actually been proven; according to a study done by Harvard University, one will gain a whole plethora of health-related benefits from owning a pet.

A woman is hugging a horse.

There are studies proving that horses are great for therapy.

4. Which animal offers the best support, particularly for autistic individuals?

As mentioned earlier, the most studied and seemingly most effective animal-based therapies for autism involve horses, dolphins, and dogs. However, not all of them are practical for all individuals. Dogs seem to be the most popular of all. This is because of their large accessibility, ease of training, trainer availability, versatility in terms of the skills they can be taught, friendliest personalities, low costs, and a smaller number of requirements from an owner. There is no denying it… the pros outweigh the cons. Just after one cuddle, you’ll totally forget about those inconvenient, middle-of-night potty trips.

Also, as effective and fun dolphins and horses can be, it isn’t easy to keep them as pets. Dolphins can only live in large waters and, while most autistic individuals benefit from interacting with them, they don’t show too many benefits from those interactions. Studies have actually shown that dolphins are quite stressed after being used for autism therapies.

Horses are also problematic as they require large spaces, lots of exercise and aren’t the most affordable. However, if you’re up for the challenge, don’t let us stop you.

On the other hand, if you’re looking into other emotional support animals that won’t break the budget and won’t need much space nor attention, you may want to think about it more. Those animals can also be helpful, but they are not the most useful for advanced autism stages. So do your research before jumping into a decision, as animals are not something we can (nor should) easily return.

5. Which dog breeds make the best ESA?

Most dogs have that trait, emotional support, embedded in their DNA. It’s not a coincidence they’re known as “man’s best friend.” However, some dogs make better service dogs than others. What does that entail? Well, besides being calm and friendly, these doggies are also highly intelligent and easily trained. The top 5 breeds for services dogs are:

  • German Shepherds
  • Labrador Retrievers
  • Golden Retrievers
  • Border Collies
  • Poodles (believe it or not, poodles are more than meets the eye)

A girl and a labrador dog are sitting on the grass.
Dogs are very intelligent, friendly, and sociable.

6. How to begin an autism therapy with an emotional support animal?

It is always recommended to undergo such therapy with an experienced, professional, licensed therapist. He/she can help select the most appropriate and effective exercises based on an individual assessment, as well as properly translate such interactions from the animal kingdom to the social “battlefield.” They are also the safest “guinea pigs” for this transition of newly acquired social skills.

However, any caretaker can take part in the process as well. They can help with demonstrating various interactions with the animal. Though with dogs, you may find that this is not really necessary. Most often, they’ll be the ones initiating interaction with everyone through their cute snout nudges and wiggly tails.

7. How effective is ESA therapy for autistic individuals?

Once more, horse, dolphin, and dog therapies are the most studied ones. So most effectiveness conclusions are based on these three. A large number of such studies, involving both children and adults, have been published in various popular journals like PubMed or NCBI. Most of these echo each other’s results, among which the overall consensus is that animal therapy is shown to have significantly improved behavioral and social skills for individuals with autism. However, results on cognitive skill improvements are still not conclusive enough.

Here are some of the studies published on these topics: 1, 2, 3, 4.

A girl is putting her head on a cat.
Researches prove the efficiency of animal-assisted therapy in cases of autism disorders.

8. Why animal-based therapy instead of other ones?

With animal-based therapy, there is a higher willingness to participate in it. Since the animal only communicates nonverbally, is easily approachable, and has low expectations, it, therefore, poses less of a threat for the autistic individual; it creates a stress-free, worry-free environment that nurtures positive interactions. At the same time, these therapies have a longer duration and higher adherence rates, usually lasting throughout the entire lifetime of the animal.

9. What are some of the challenges associated with ESA therapies?

From a research perspective, the effectiveness of such therapies for all types of animals, all types of disorders, and all different stages of each disorder is obviously quite hard to clearly measure. It inherently involves too many variables to control and biases to eliminate. 

When it comes to implementation, however, the only challenges could be cost and the ability of the individuals involved to be there for the animal consistently. Other than that, they are quite quick and easy to initiate and keep up with. Most of the time it’s simply about petting, cuddling, and playing with the animal.

One challenge of these therapies, though, may be in the difficulty to translate the behaviors learned to human interactions, particularly if the animal is not present in those situations. ESA therapies may create dependency on the animal, which is why the presence and involvement of a licensed therapist are highly recommended.

A girl and a boy are lying on the grass with a dog.
You should consult a licensed therapist before you find the animal for the therapy.

10. Where can one find an emotional support animal?

It is important to mention that emotional support animals can and should be prescribed by a licensed mental health professional. Regular ESAs do not require any training; however, for more complicated disorders like autism and especially at more advanced stages, certain skills are necessary for the animal to know and exhibit promptly. Most of these skills are interventional, which do require some training.

One could simply get a rescue animal and train it. Some rescue facilities have their own trainers on staff. You could also get an already trained animal from an accredited institution, which will vary based on your geographic location.

by GetESA

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