Veterinary College Program Nets Grant for Autism Research

The WSU autism research study needs autistic children or those with another pervasive developmental disorder aged 12 and under who live in the Pullman area to participate free of charge. Interested persons should contact François Martin at 509/335-4569 or
PULLMAN, Wash. — The Pet Care Trust of Washington D.C. has granted nearly $21,000 to Washington State University’s College of Veterinary Medicine for research on animal-assisted therapy for people with autism.
The proposed research is a two-year project. The study’s lead researcher says there are great misunderstandings by the public when it comes to autism and animals.
“At the present time, most experiments conducted regarding people with autism and animals have been case studies that lead the public to believe simply placing an animal in a room with an autistic child will have miraculous results,” said François Martin, associate director of the Center for the Study of Animal Well-being and head of the People Pet Partnership (PPP) at WSU. “Unfortunately, this type of outcome is fairly unrealistic.” Martin prefers to view the animals as tools assisting the counselor. A child’s excitement over an animal can be transformed into benefits such as increased communication with their therapist.
Martin and his colleagues have chosen to create what he calls “one of the first really scientific experiments studying people with autism and animal-assisted therapy.” He stresses that this research is not intended to “cure” autism, but rather to assist psychologists and social workers in dealing with and helping autistic people.
The study is designed to work with 12 children in private, tri-weekly therapy sessions over a 15-week period. Each 10-15 minute meeting will be videotaped. A formal list of identical questions and activities for each child, with some flexibility, will be used. The psychologist in charge of the study is PPP’s Program Manager Daun Martin (no relation).
Three situations will be studied throughout the project. In one, Martin will attempt to encourage pro-social behavior in the child while playing with a toy such as a large ball. In the second, a stuffed animal is used in place of the ball. The third session involves meetings with the therapist and a dog replacing the stuffed animal.
Researchers will analyze the videotaped sessions to study the children’s behavior, number of smiles and words, and the distance maintained between each child and the therapist. This measures the exact effect of each experiment by the number of the child’s personal changes from session to session. In the second year of the project, researchers will code the videos, further analyze the data, and report the results.
Autism is not well understood. It is a condition caused by biological brain disorders. The condition is present in about 15 out of every 10,000 births, and is usually discovered in children within the first three years of life. According to some sources, autism is treatable with early diagnosis and intervention. People with autism have difficulty with communication and social interaction. Personal cases range from light to severe and are often accompanied by mental challenges or disabilities.
Martin approached the Pet Care Trust for a research grant for 1999-2000 and was awarded the $20,802 grant. He will apply for continued funding next year.
The Pet Care Trust is a non-profit organization that attempts to increase the level of human knowledge regarding their companion animals, to promote responsible and caring pet ownership, and to donate funds to sponsor research and education.