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What a Dog Can Do: Children with Autism and Therapy Dogs in Social Interaction

For almost 50 years specially trained dogs have been used in clinical and family settings to facilitate how children with autism engage in social interaction and participate in everyday activities. Yet little theoretical grounding and empirical study of this socioclinical phenomenon has been offered by social science. This article draws on interdisciplinary scholarship to situate the study of the therapeutic use of dogs for children and teens with autism. Two case studies of service and therapy dogs’ mediating social engagement of children with autism in relationships, interactions, and activities illustrate how dogs support children’s communication, their experience of emotional connection with others, and their participation in everyday life. Theorizing this process enriches approaches to sociality in psychological anthropology. [animal-assisted therapy, autism, engagement, sociality, intersubjectivity.

This article is based on a pilot study of animal-assisted therapy for children with autism spectrum disorders that I carried out in 2003–05.4 The analysis focuses on ways in which children’s interactions with dogs, trainers, and family members supports their sociality and participation in everyday activities. Recruitment was conducted at a local chapter of a parent advocacy organization. I brought a therapy dog to the original presentation to make it more informative for the parents attending the meeting. Five children with autism, four boys and one girl ages 4–14 participated in the study. All the children had a prior diagnosis of autistic disorder from Southern California medical institutions; two of the children were high functioning and three severely affected. To gain variation in children’s response and to explore challenges and potentialities of animal-assisted therapy, families with children of different ages were recruited in the study. The study was ethnographically informed and data driven. I aimed to video record and analyze details of child-dog-and another person interaction to investigate the import of canine involvement in children’s participation in everyday activities and relationships with other people. A professional animal trainer experienced in animal-assisted therapy brought one to four therapy dogs to the children’s home once a week. The number of visits varied among children, with a maximum number of visits being six. The visits lasted between one and two hours, and included individual work with the focal child, and time with the focal child and the siblings in the end of the session.

On the basis of a historical and sociocultural perspective on how dogs mediate human activity and two case studies, I present an argument that children with autism socially benefit from interactions in which service and therapy dogs are included, and that specially trained dogs powerfully reorganize interactional habitus (Bourdieu 1990a, 1990b) to make it more adaptable to the challenges imposed by autism. My goal was to explore autism to understand the sociocultural, practical, and symbolic meaning that specially trained dogs hold for children with autism and their families. I offered my analysis of video-recorded social interactions and family interviews to articulate ways in which therapy and service dogs mediate social engagement of the children and their families. This analysis demonstrates that childFdog interactions afford an experience of emotional connection between an autistic child and family members, as well as between the child and the dogs.


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