Animal-Assisted Therapy as a Treatment for Autism Spectrum Disorder: Encouraging Physician Participation in Research

Animal-Assisted Therapy as a Treatment for Autism Spectrum Disorder: Encouraging Physician Participation in Research

Nicola Claire Pellew
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-5225-7004-2.ch009
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Research studies report that animal-assisted therapy (AAT) may be an effective alternative method for treating autism spectrum disorder (ASD). However, the presence of many methodological weaknesses and the limited replication of such studies have resulted in divided opinion on the actual effectiveness of AAT for treating ASD, and much hesitancy surrounding its use. Reliable clinically based studies must be conducted if this uncertainty is to be put to rest. Because these studies require the participation of physicians who are often hesitant to participate, it is suggested that leadership interventions be used as tools to encourage their participation in AAT research. This chapter aims to discuss the necessity for physician participation, the reasons for the lack of clinician participation in such research, and recommendations for encouraging physician and policymaker participation in specifically targeted research studies.
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Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) has received much attention over the past decade. During this time, research on the mystifying disorder has evolved significantly and has led to greater understanding of the condition and its underlying pathophysiology (Patel, Preedy, & Martin, 2014). Accordingly, the expansion of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders 4th Edition Text Revised (DSM-IV TR) reflected this change in the broadened ASD diagnostic criteria now outlined in the DSM-V (American Psychiatric Association [APA], 2013). Treatments have followed suit, with new treatment combinations often greatly improving the condition and quality of life of many sufferers. However, these treatments can be costly (Amendah, Grosse, Peacock, & Mandell, 2011; Lavelle, Weinstein, Newhouse, Munir, Kuhlthau, & Prosser, 2014; Patel, Preedy, & Martin, 2014). As such, obtaining treatment not only places financial strain on many individuals (Ganz, 2007; Kogan, Strickland, Blumberg, Singh, Perrin, & Van Dyck, 2008; Montes & Halterman, 2008; Shimabukuro, Grosse, & Rice, 2008); it creates a ripple effect on the U.S. healthcare system and economy as a whole (Amendah, Grosse, Peacock, & Mandell, 2011).

Animal-assisted therapy (AAT) has been suggested as an effective adjunct to many treatment types. However, a lack of robust clinical trials specifically targeting AAT for ASD has meant that most evidence is reflective of AAT as an alternative treatment for other mental and behavioral disorders such as depression, schizophrenia, and addictions (Kamioka, Okada, Tsutani, Park, Okuizumi, Handa, . . .Abe, 2014). Additionally, there are no randomized, double-blind case-controlled two-group experimental studies targeted at individuals with ASD (Kamioka, Okada, Tsutani, Park, Okuizumi, Handa, . . .Abe, 2014). Therefore, practitioners and policymakers are hesitant to fully endorse the method for treating ASD. Determining the efficacy and suitability of AAT for ASD requires the participation of physicians in specifically targeted case-controlled studies.

This review aims to discuss the necessity for physician participation in AAT for ASD research, explore AAT as a possible adjunct treatment for the disorder, discuss reasons for the lack of participation of clinicians in such research, and make recommendations for encouraging physicians and policymakers to participate in specifically targeted research studies. The chapter’s objectives are to systematically identify, describe, and compare literature, in order to:

  • Define and describe ASD and AAT;

  • Explore current ASD treatment methods;

  • Discuss the financial impact of ASD management;

  • Discuss current AAT practices;

  • Identify the benefits and challenges of using AAT to treat ASD;

  • Suggest ways to encourage physician participation in AAT for ASD based research; and

  • Provide recommendations for safely incorporating AAT into ASD treatments so that safe, high-quality case-control studies can be conducted.

Lastly, findings and future directions are discussed.

Key Terms in this Chapter

Interdisciplinary Healthcare Teams: A group of healthcare professionals from various fields who work collaboratively to achieve a common goal for the patient.

Clinical Study: Any research study that prospectively assigns human participants or groups of humans to one or more health-related interventions to evaluate the effects on health outcomes.

Extrinsic Motivation: The drive of an individual to make an effort based on rewards or punishments.

Animal-Assisted Therapy: A therapeutic modality in which a certified animal forms an essential part of the treatment process.

Strategic Leadership: A plan developed using well-considered tactics to communicate a vision, and the outline, the goals, and objectives to be met, in order to achieve it.

Autism Spectrum Disorder: An incurable condition whereby an individual has poor social and communication skills and may display restricted and repetitive behaviors.

Intrinsic Motivation: The drive within an individual to make an effort due to interest in the work being performed, consisting of a desire to achieve, have purpose, obtain autonomy, reach mastery, take responsibility, and grow and learn.

Health Policy: Decisions, plans, and actions that are outlined and followed to achieve specific healthcare goals.

Leadership Vision: A mental image that is used to guide an organization or group into the future. A leadership vision forms the basis upon which goals are set, plans are made, and problems are solved.

Complementary and Alternative Medicine: A group of various medical and health approaches that are used in place of or as an adjunct to allopathic approaches, but that is not considered to be allopathic in nature.

Leadership: The ability to motivate a group of people to work towards achieving a common goal.

Conventional/Allopathic Medicine: Widely accepted treatment that is used by most healthcare professionals.

Double-Blind Study: A type of medical study characterized by the unawareness of both the study participants and researcher are unaware of whether the treatment or procedure has been administered. Double-blinded studies are frequently used if initial studies have demonstrated particular promise.

Randomized Control Trial: A study in which participants are selected at random to receive one of several clinical interventions. One of these interventions the control which, may be a standard practice, a placebo, or no intervention at all.

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