The Study of Human-Animal Interactions The CAIRC Scholarship Program Summary of the Past Researches
Summary of the Past Scholarship Research
From "Letter from CAIRC" October 2002
Research Theme: "Research and Scientific Evaluation of Animal-assisted Therapy Using Dogs for High Functioning Autism"
By Kazuhiko Nakamura
An Assistant Professor,
Department of Psychiatry & Neurology
Hamamatsu University, School of Medicine
Like ordinary autism, high functioning autism is a qualitative barrier to interacting socially. The patients have normal I.Q. levels, but the condition impacts their lives in many ways by inhibiting the social skills needed to adapt to school and work environments. Currently, a support group is formed for those people with Asperger’s syndrome. Kazuhiko Nakamura, a former assistant professor at Azabu University’s School of Veterinary Medicine, is studying animal-assisted therapy (AAT) among children with high functioning autism. He is looking into the behavioral and psychological effects of improvements in social skills through activities in which children interact with dogs. Nakamura’s team, made up of experts from a number of fields including psychiatrist, veterinarians, psychotherapy and animal training, has discussed on the subject and produced an invaluable study.

In this project, a research program was designed in which subjects each spent 30 minutes to 1 hour in sessions interacted with dogs once every two weeks. A total of 12 sessions were conducted with each subject over a six-month period. The five subjects of the study ranged in age from 11 to 16, and all had been diagnosed by specialists with high functioning autism.

The first two sessions provided the subject with an opportunity to learn how to interact with dogs, and to grow accustomed to the dog. The third and fourth sessions included self-directed activity in which the subject planned out a route and actively took the dog for a walk. The final aim was to improve the subject’s ability to plan and carry out an activity. After each session, evaluations were made of how close each subject had come to achieving the goal of the activity, and at the end of the program, changes were mapped out from the point of view of social skills.

“Suffering from obsessive-compulsive disorder and depression, Subject A was in a state that made social interaction very difficult. In these circumstances, AAT provided the subject with an opportunity to go outdoors and resulted in more abundant affective expression. Subject E had been so uncomfortable with dogs that he had drawn a map of his neighborhood showing the locations of households with dogs so that he could avoid those areas. After the program, however, his phobia of dogs had been ameliorated.

“More than a few autistic patients suffer from intense fear of dogs like Subject E. This fear could be the result of past experiences. For instance, it is thought that being barked at by a dog could leave a more lasting traumatic memory in an autistic child than in a normal child. Even so, it is possible to devise a situation in which the high functioning autistic child can enjoy taking a walk with a dog.”

Nakamura chose to use dogs for the following four reasons. 1) The experience of approaching and controlling interaction with dogs helps reduce the anxiety and tension resulting from contact with animals in daily life, and thereby reduce the subject’s feelings of turmoil. 2) Participating in activities that involve contact with dogs provides the subject with opportunities to exercise outdoors. 3) Contact with dogs can be expected to ease feelings of apprehension and anxiety. 4) They planned to help subjects improve their communication skills through a self-initiated behavior. Another major advantage of using dogs was the fact that to a greater extent than with other animals, mutual cooperation is easer between well trained dogs and trainers, veterinarians, doctors and psychotherapists, which facilitates AAT.

Nakamura reported that improvements in communicative ability were among the changes common to the five subjects. They became able to express affection for the dogs, and to respond to the experience of handling other living beings. Another change was their active communication with staff members.

“At present, reports of the behavioral changes that occur in patients participating in AAT are virtually nonexistent,” Nakamura noted, indicating his hopes for the future of this field. “In the future, we would like to evaluate the subjects with the Child Behavior Check List (CBCL) scale both before and after the program, and analyze the resulting data in order to better understand its results.