When building a Gersh Academy in Washington State, Kevin Gersh had a revolutionary idea: if we know children on the spectrum benefit from relationships with animals, why aren’t animals a regular part of the school day? With that in mind, Gersh Academy Cougar Mountain was opened adjacent to Cougar Mountain Zoo, making it the first school for children with autism in the country that has a zoo on campus.
It’s a well-known fact that having a pet, or spending time with an animal, can have numerous benefits on a person’s mental and physical well-being. More and more universities are bringing puppies on campus during finals season, libraries are hosting events where children can read to dogs, and equine therapy is gaining popularity among a number of communities. Having time to bond with animals can lessen heart rate and blood pressure, reduce stress and anxiety, and improve communication skills.
All of these benefits are magnified within the autism community. Often, we see our students struggle with initiating interactions with peers, observing social cues, and dealing with intense bouts of anxiety. However, a relationship with an animal can greatly reduce those moments while at the same time helping to develop the coping skills needed at those times.
Here are some ways having animals in close proximity benefits students on the autism spectrum.
Serves as a Bridge to Others
At Gersh Academy, we take a lot of time to practice social skills and learn what it takes to build a relationship. Often for our students, however, initiating contact is the scariest part. In those instances, an animal can be a powerful tool to use to connect to the other person. The animal’s presence can offer the security that a student needs, provide a topic of conversation, or entice others to approach that student in the first place.
Sometimes, the animal drives a child in a more direct way to communicate with others. When a child notices the animal needs something to eat or drink, or seems to be angry or upset in some way, they often feel it necessary to communicate that need to an adult. In these instances, the child is building empathetic communication skills without even realizing it. They want to help the animal; we want to help their quality of life. Through these interactions, both parties win.
About 40 percent of people on the spectrum also battle anxiety. Anxiety can direct the way a person engages with the world and prevent them from forming connections with others. Establishing a bond with an animal has been found to alleviate some of this anxiety. In fact, 75 percent of those with pets claim to have experienced improved mental health. This is due to the increase of oxytocin levels in the brain when around animals, resulting in reduced stress.
Often for our students, their prior experiences with school have made the school setting a stressful one. Especially for those on the spectrum, emotions at times may get high and they might feel as if they have no control over them. Animals have the potential to recognize anxiety in humans, and the ability to evoke calm in times of distress. In addition, it’s been found that time to interact with an animal builds more excitement and decreases anxiety more than in neurotypical children. This decrease in anxiety is more drastic in these interactions than interactions with peers, or time alone.
Shows Nonjudgmental, Unconditional Love
What we all love about pets is the unconditional love they give us. They don’t care how we look, what we wear, what our hobbies are, or how they talk. Our students on the spectrum may be accustomed to facing judgment for their mannerisms, habits, or behaviors. With an animal, however, none of this matters.The animal, oblivious to all of it, will only show love.
For our nonverbal students, the relationships with animals are even more special. Most humans depend on speech in order to communicate. However, the communication between animal and human is completely nonverbal. This alleviates the anxiety for some of having to create a conversation, and for others the comfort of a relationship without word
Gersh Academy offers dog therapy, equine therapy, and goat therapy, as well as our Washington State campus being adjacent to a zoo. That is because a vast majority of parents have claimed Animal-Assisted Therapy (AAT) has resulted in noticeable improvements in their children in terms of communication skills, mental health, and coping skills. AAT has been proven to reduce loneliness, alleviate anxiety, and increase prosocial behavior. The school was placed in this location, seeing this as the next direction autism education is venturing towards.
If your student does not live near one of our campuses, or does not currently have access within the school setting to AAT or animals to interact with, look to local libraries, centers, and even ABA programs to check out what they offer. Knowing the enormous and numerous benefits animals can have on our children, it is more than worth the time.