Animals can play key role in therapy for severely disabled children

December 03, 2001

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. -- When trying to engage and interact with children with severe, multiple disabilities, therapists have found that nothing gets their patients' attention like a visit with Fido, Fluffy or Flicka.

"The impact of the novelty of an animal's presence during therapy sessions may be considered a crucial component of a successful outcome," writes Kathy Heimlich in an article published this month in the fall issue of the Journal of Rehabilitation. "Although not a replacement for the human therapist, the animal becomes a co-therapist, capable of breaking down the barriers that prevent the disabled child from attending to and interacting with his environment."

Heimlich's paper, "Animal Assisted Therapy and the Severely Disabled Child," is based on research she conducted as a graduate student in community health at the University of Illinois, with professors Chrisann Schiro-Geist and Emer Broadbent. The study was carried out at Hope School, a residential treatment facility in Springfield, Ill., and measured the effects of animal-assisted therapy on 14 residents. Assisting Heimlich was her dog, Cody.

Schiro-Geist said that while anecdotal and qualitative indicators have long demonstrated the benefits of animal-assisted therapies, the quantitative effects have been tougher to track. The UI researchers are working on methodologies aimed at measuring what is occurring.

"We know something's going on, but can't document it," Schiro-Geist said. "The kids who have been through this therapy behave better, are more cooperative in class and demonstrate speech gains. As to what really happens, that's a mystery," she said, adding that "there is probably a chemical change when you have this behavior."

Although results of the Hope School study were inconclusive, Heimlich said the work yielded valuable insights and will function as a useful roadmap for future studies.

"In my view, probably the most significant outcome of this study points to the need for everyone involved with the persons receiving this type of therapy to be on the same page," Heimlich said. "From top administrators to classroom teachers to direct care staff, everyone must be educated regarding the theory and techniques that are being utilized. An effective therapeutic intervention cannot exist in a vacuum; it must be a team effort."

In addition, Heimlich said, "We found that by identifying four variables to study - mobility, communication, compliance and attention span - rather than watching for broad behavioral changes, we could more easily measure improvements. This technique is similar to the way special education teachers assess their students and develop Individualized Educational Program (IEP) goals. Once an objective is identified, it is then possible to analyze and measure the steps that will lead to achievement of those goals. In this manner, results can be quantified."

University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

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