Approximately 1 in 6 children in the United States has a developmental disability, and approximately 1 in 68 children are diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). Interventions based on the principles of applied behavior analysis (ABA) have shown to be particularly successful at improving educational and behavioral outcomes for individuals with ASD and/or intellectual and developmental disabilities (IDD). Despite the beneficial outcomes, educational interventions can be a source of stress for children with ASD/IDD, and stress can impact learning and memory. Creating an educational setting that balances the levels of stress is beneficial. One emerging type of intervention to improve academic skills in children is to mitigate stress, thus reducing cortisol level, by providing access to a therapy dog. In children with ASD/IDD, the presence of a dog has been shown to decrease cortisol levels and improve general focus. In additional to enhancing learning, therapy dogs may also enhance ABA-based interventions through ensuring that the child stays motivated. Finding a potent reinforcer to motivate children to learn new skills is crucial for ABA-based programing. Because human attachment to dogs grows over time, dogs might be a highly durable reinforcer, thus integrating well into ABA-based interventions.
- Develop a novel AAI and ABA combination intervention to improve academic fluency in children with ASD/IDD. Hypothesis: A systematic integration of AAI into ABA-based interventions will result in greater improvements in academic fluency and on-task behavior of children than providing traditional ABA or AAI independently.
- Determine if therapy dog access mitigates stress during educational programming. Hypothesis: Interaction with a dog during an ABA-based intervention when the dog is provided as a reinforcer for completing academic work will result in arousal-level salivary cortisol concentrations and will facilitate learning and memory better than the traditional ABA approach.
- Compare the reinforcing value of a therapy dog to inanimate leisure items. Hypothesis: The therapy dog will be a more durable reinforcer over time as determined via multiple, repeated preference assessments. By repeating the preference assessments for leisure items as well as the therapy dog across time, we will be able to determine how the preference of each reinforcer changes across the intervention.
Using a rigorous single-subject design, this study will determine the benefit of integrating therapy dogs with an Applied Behavior Analysis-based intervention on physiological stress and academic responding in children with Autism Spectrum Disorder.
This study will determine the benefit of integrating therapy dogs with an Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA)-based intervention on physiological stress and academic responding in children with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). In a rigorous single-subject design, 6 children with ASD will experience ABA-based intervention with and without the presence of therapy dogs as well as the integration of the dogs in various ways into the session. Preference for the dogs will be monitored across time and compared to more typical leisure rewards.
We predict dogs will be a more potent and durable reward for children, and that the dog-induced educational improvements will be mediated by changes in stress biomarkers. Integrating therapy dogs with ABA, an established intervention for children with ASD, will help us understand how therapy dogs may benefit children with ASD, improve existing teaching approaches for children with ASD, and provide a starting point for new research into incorporating animals into education and health programs.