Paws for Thought: In what way can the intervention of a fully-trained assistance dog influence a child with autism?

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A key issue in childhood Autism is that individuals' stress coping mechanisms are overwhelmed by sensory stimuli in daily activities. Often these stimuli trigger negative AM within the individual, raising anxiety levels and leading to negative behaviours. However, occasionally, these can also be newly-encountered experiences, leading to a lack of positive AM that would normally provide a coping mechanism in a neuro-typically developing child; who would either not react, or would recover within seconds.
Children with Autism have many triggers in common, such as loud noises and a dislike of being touched, but they also have individual triggers such as a dislike of a particular texture. Many autistic individuals, when faced with a activity, access their experiential memory-recalling the outcome of a previous attempt before they process the activity itself. This can often lead to the negative responses presenting prior to undertaking the task. Responses to triggers can manifest in self-stimulating behaviours (stimming), a refusal to go ahead with the activity, emotional shutdown, a refusal to re-attempt the task or re-attend the place and cause further impact on their already compromised executive function.
The gap in current knowledge lies in whether the presence and actions of the assistance dog will alleviate the stress, thus changing the perception of the child handler, increasing their coping abilities and creating a positive AM associated with the specific activity.
This time-series analysis will occur before and after the placement of an assistance dog (the intervention) with an autistic child. In short, the study proposes to examine the influence of the assistance dog on the individual???s ability to build positive experiential memory.

Utilising a multiple case study design this research will focus on how a child remembers a daily task, such as catching a train, before and after the placement of the assistance dog, and how autobiographical memory (AM) may be altered by the dog successfully implementing its training.

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Supervisors supervising this project

Dr Ingrid Willenberg Co-Supervisor

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