There’s a reason we call dogs a “man’s best friend.” Mutual relationships between animals and their owners or caregivers build a sense of confidence and responsibility that are beneficial for mental health issues. Animal therapy is a growing field that uses a variety of animals, particularly dogs, cats, and horses, in therapeutic settings to improve people’s moods, ability to cope with stressful situations, and increase their empathy in relationships.
New Focus Academy’s growing Animal Stewardship program helps boys with autism find emotional support through interactions with certified therapy animals, when they are struggling to connect in other social situations. We have two therapy dogs on campus and the students are raising chickens. They are responsible for the care, development, and growth of the animals, which in turn, play a significant role in their own development, and growth.
Animal Stewardship Reduces Social Stress
Some animals can act as a buffer against social stress in teens with autism. Temple Grandin, an autism-rights activist and professor of animal science, has spent her career advocating for animal stewardship in teens with autism. She claims that her diagnosis has helped her show more empathy for animals, who think more rationally, instinctively, and rigidly. They both are more tuned in to sensory details and changes in their environment, which helps them develop mutual relationships based on this understanding.
Spending time around animals has a significant effect on physical symptoms of stress, lowering heartrate, blood pressure, and calming the nervous system. As teens with autism spend more time with animals, particularly ones they connect with, they experience less stress in other social situations.
Building Social Skills
Research shows that developing close bonds with animals increases oxytocin levels in humans. Oxytocin is the neurotransmitter known as the “love hormone” that contributes to building intimacy, trust, and empathy in social relationships. Teens with autism struggle with lower levels of oxytocin that affect their social skills and ability to feel close to others in relationships.
Understanding Nonverbal Communication
Many animals, particularly dogs, are skilled at recognizing human facial expressions and being sensitive to their emotions. While we may not speak the same language, animals use nonverbal cues to communicate with humans. Based on their reliance on instinct and sensory input, it is possible that dogs are more emotionally intelligent than humans are with in their ability to identify emotions and respond to others.
Teens with autism may be more in tune with their own emotional experiences, but have a harder time articulating how they feel and understanding nonverbal communication. In developing relationships with animals who rely on nonverbal cues to connect with humans, teens with autism work on their nonverbal communication skills.
Setting Therapeutic Goals:
All relationships with animals can be therapeutic. Many of our staff members bring their dogs to campus. The dogs often notice students’ emotions and provide comfort when they are overwhelmed. The presence of dogs in therapists’ offices helps students feel more at ease and makes sessions feel more casuals. Sometimes, therapists may suggest taking the dog for a walk for a change of environment and to help students who feel restless in an office. Animals can be used to work towards specific therapeutic goals, including:
- Developing a sense of responsibility
- Reducing anxiety and overwhelming emotions
- Distraction from stressful situations
- Developing communication skills
- Increasing self-reflection
- Increasing empathy
- Learning how to care for and nurture others
- Strengthening companionship through non-verbal or non-judgmental support
New Focus Academy Can Help
New Focus Academy is a residential treatment center for boys ages 12-18 who struggle with autism spectrum disorder or other neurodevelopmental disorders. The program utilizes positive reinforcement to increase the student’s self-esteem and independence. The social skills that teens on the autism spectrum learn at New Focus will help them learn to have positive social interaction, organization, and improve their self-management skills. Students are given the opportunity to gain the confidence they need to foster and maintain healthy relationships and lifestyle habits.
For more information about our animal stewardship program, call us at (844) 313-6749. We can help your family today!