People with autism can benefit from interaction with animals

Friday, April 9, 2010 | 7:58 p.m. CDT; updated 2:32 p.m. CDT, Tuesday, April 13, 2010
Brendyn Perkins, 7, who has autism, walks China, a therapy dog, at the Autism Intervention Conference on Friday at the Holiday Inn in Columbia. The MU College of Veterinary Medicine and Thompson Center for Autism and Neurodevelopmental Disorders are jointly working on a survey to determine the benefits of using human-animal interaction to aid people with autism.

COLUMBIA — When Carter Hanners, 6, tries to leave the house by himself, the Hanners' dog Jack barks and growls.

"I think a lot of kids with disabilities just have bonds with animals," said Carter's mom, Susan Hanners from Nixa. "Animals almost have an extra sense that he needs more help than his sister."

Carter has autism. The Hanners recently acquired a new dog, Blue, to be Carter's companion and keep him safe. Carter tries to run away from the house and has pica, so he eats nonfood materials. The Hanners are hoping to train Blue to make sure Carter stays in the house and doesn't try to eat strange things.

The Hanners attended the Fifth Autism Intervention Conference on Friday at the Holiday Inn. The MU College of Veterinary Medicine had a booth at the conference and handed out surveys to study the potential benefits of human-animal interaction for children and families with autism.

"My theory is that families with autism may benefit from a calming effect from a dog," said Rebecca Johnson, director of the Research Center on Human-Animal Interaction at MU.

Dogs can have a positive effect on social behavior for people with autism. Jessa Love is the director of early intervention services at the Thompson Center for Autism and Neurodevelopmental Disorders. One of her adult clients with Aspergers syndrome, an autism spectrum disorder, finds a dog's presence helpful in social situations.

"The dog wasn't doing anything, but having the dog with her in those social situations helped her to deal with social anxiety and interacting with people," Love said.

Johnson also brought certified therapy dog China to the conference to demonstrate some of the effects animals may have on people with autism. The 12-year-old Siberian Husky usually visits hospitals.

"She's very reliable, very well-behaved," Johnson said. "She's quite a poster dog for a therapy dog."

Three of Susan Perkins' six kids have special needs. All of them love dogs, including the Perkins' two dogs, Jar Jar Binks and Maggie. Brendyn Perkins, 7, who has autism attended the conference with his parents and cautiously approached China.

"He's always loved dogs," Susan Perkins said. "I think it's because dogs are so loveable. When the dog wants to leave (Brendyn's) room, he gets really upset. He just wants them to lay there with him and chill."

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