An Overview of the Positive Benefits of Human Animal Interaction for Children with Developmental Disabilities
Part 2 in a Series
By Christina Swanson
Summer 2018 edition briefly reviewed the history of the human-animal bond and AAT’s impact on helping children with developmental disabilities. Now we focus on Dr. Edenfield’s research with children within the autism spectrum, and how the Dr. Jon and Nantuckett team is another advantage for your child.
An additional level of therapy was added to the Great Strides Rehabilitation Center and School three years ago when owner and executive director, Dr. Jon Edenfield, introduced Animal Assisted Therapy (AAT) with Nantuckett, a trained Canine Companions for Independence (CCI) dog, into his extensive program.
Already known as one of northeast Florida’s first comprehensive, one-stop, multi-resource, rehabilitation centers, Great Strides Rehabilitation is the result of more than 20 years of research and study by Edenfield as an occupational therapist (OT) being guided by “observing others being assisted and finding new ways of helping people have a better life.”
His experience with the positive benefits of Human Animal Interaction(HAI) for children with developmental disabilities began when he was earning his degrees in OT at the University of Florida (UF). For years, Edenfield volunteered with UF’s hippo therapy, that helps patients with spinal cord injuries and cerebral palsy learn how to walk, and other skills, with the use of horses. Research shows a horse’s movements mimic human movements, so patients can be guided to accomplish various medical goals, like increasing their range of motion or strengthening their core, with horses.
He and his then future wife, who raised and trained horses, also helped several therapeutic riding programs that teach special needs children how to ride a horse to bolster self-esteem. Seeing the big smiles of accomplishment on the kid’s faces and knowing that therapeutic riding was producing results, the Edenfield’s hoped to one day have their own program. When they married and moved to Jacksonville in 2000, they found a home with a large lot with just that in mind. An elderly friend gifted them with his two horses and “Great Strides” was born.
So, Edenfield’s knowledge of how animals can uniquely reach and help children with disabilities began a while before he began researching how animal assisted therapy helps children with autism spectrum disorder. It ended up being his capstone project for three years while he worked toward his OT clinical doctorate, titled “Pilot Study: The physiological effects of animal assisted therapy on children with autism spectrum disorder,” at the University of St. Augustine for Health Sciences.
“The evidence of the health benefits in the bonding between animals and people goes back hundreds of years so why not incorporate this benefit while helping challenged children?” asked Edenfield. Early studies give evidence of the positive effects of HAI, most notably the reduction of stress-related parameters such as cortisol, heart rate, and blood pressure and an increase in improved behavior, social interaction and mood.
For the past several years, Edenfield has shared his knowledge and the process it takes to incorporate an AAT program working with children with autism through a presentation he developed for therapists and medical practitioners. Edenfield covers everything anyone could possibly need to know going back to the early history of HAI, the differences between AAT and AAA (animal assisted activity), other local facilities using AAT or AAA, and the process involved with getting, working with and incorporating a canine companion.
“My hope is that my doctorate research and overview presentation will add to the body of data that supports the use of animal assisted therapy for children with autism as well as make local practitioners aware of the history and process,” said Edenfield.
Although both provide opportunities for motivational, educational, and/or therapeutic benefits to enhance quality of life, AAT differs from AAA in that it has specified goals and objectives for each individual, is directed or delivered by a health service professional with specialized expertise in the area being worked, and the patient’s progress is measured.
Determining whether to use AAT for an individual will depend on what the therapist is evaluating and the best tool to use for this. “Much like a swing, therapy ball or other equipment or method, a practitioner will elect to use AAT because they have determined it will be a better way to teach a skill or accomplish a target,” said Edenfield. “The most important part to any successful treatment is the research and planning.”
Next: the final installment will explore the training that goes into forming the human/animal team, the results of Dr. Edenfield’s pilot study and how fostering shelter kittens are also providing another way to teach skills to students.