Saturday, March 5, 2011

Occupational therapy and... llamas?

I recently read a study conducted by Mona J. Sams, Elizabeth V. Fortney and Stan Willenbring in which autistic children were observed during occupational therapy sessions both with and without animal incorporation. Typically these sessions focus on sensory integration theory, which states that sensory deficits "interfere with the ability to attend to and respond appropriately to complex stimuli...making organized behavior difficult." Similarly, children with autism may also experience lowered levels of motivation, such that reinforcement stimuli that would be beneficial for "normal" children doesn't sway the autistic child. Occupational therapy centered around sensory integration theory focuses heavily on "child-directed sessions" in which the child is encouraged to participate in challenging (but not too challenging) activities that fit a given goal specific to the child.

Another hypothesis has also been formed called the "biophillia" hypothesis. This hypothesis, from a 1997 study by Kellert,  states that "humans have adapted to be attentive to both human and nonhuman life forms in their environment." From this hypothesis, the use of animal integration in occupational therapy has grown more popular and widely used.

Yet one of the most influential researchers in this field not only relies on data but on personal experience -- Temple Grandin is an autistic woman with a PhD who also teaches animal science says in a book she wrote that "being autistic has helped me to understand how they [animals] feel ... People often fail to observe animals." She even used her perceptions and her love of animals to even create a way to calm cows down before entering a slaughter house.

They study by Sams, Fortney and Willenbring examined 22 children in occupational therapy sessions within the school setting. Each child received the typical occupational therapy session, as well as animal-assisted sessions as well, keeping the durations of each fairly constant. These sessions attempted to incorporate sensory integration, as well as promote language use, sensory skills, and motor skills. When animals were not used in the session, tools for therapy included teeter totters, swings, stretchy play clay, mechanical toys, sensory balls, arts and crafts, puzzles, and letter magnets. 

While working with animals, children were most often caring for llamas. They would brush and feed them,  train and lead them through obstacle courses, and ride them, as well as card the wool, and load and unload them. These activities improved sensory input, and communications promoted language use. The children also spent time petting dogs and rabbits, as well as throwing a ball for the dogs.

Their research found that when animals were incorporated in occupational therapy sessions for autistic children their social interaction and their language skills were improved. Children were much more willing to participate in the activities and interact with the therapist, compared to when sessions incorporated the typical therapy practices for sensory integration. 

This study opened my eyes to some things I hadn't thought about before concerning animal assisted therapy. The first thing I realized is that animal assisted therapy doesn't always include the common house pets -- even barn animals help improve the basic functions of autistic children. At the risk of sounding naive, I had always pictured children in a therapists office simply hanging out with a dog, perhaps brushing them or playing with them, but in a more professional setting, which brings me to the second thing I found interesting and new. The use of more concrete tasks, such as feeding and training the llamas, is very interesting because it provides children with productive tasks that provide work but in a context that they find stimulating and motivating. 

Reading this study opened up my research to more possibilities and I'm excited to explore further. But until then...I'll leave you with some pictures!

Cute llama

 He loves the warmth of the drier...

 ... and the warmth of the sun.

But most of all, he loves being lazy.

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