Abstract: The Effects of Service Dogs for Children with Autism Spectrum Disorder and Their Caregivers (Society for Social Work and Research 26th Annual Conference - Social Work Science for Racial, Social, and Political Justice)

The Effects of Service Dogs for Children with Autism Spectrum Disorder and Their Caregivers

Friday, January 14, 2022
Marquis BR Salon 13, ML 2 (Marriott Marquis Washington, DC)
* noted as presenting author
Rodriguez Kerri, Ph.D, social work faculty, Colorado State University
Mandy Rispoli, Professor, Purdue University
Bridgette Tonnsen, Associate Professor, Purdue University
Evan Maclean, Assistant Professor, University of Arizona
Marguerite O'Haire, Associate professor, Purdue University
Introduction. Autism service dogs are an increasingly popular complementary intervention for children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). Preliminary research suggests that the service dog’s trained tasks and companionship may reduce children’s ASD symptomology and physiological arousal while decreasing caregiver burden and worry. However, current literature on ASD service dogs is largely limited by anecdotal reports and small sample sizes. This leaves social workers, occupational therapists, and mental health practitioners with little information in which to make recommendations to their clients about if an autism service dog is suitable for their family. Our objective of this study was to empirically evaluate the effects of autism service dogs on child, caregiver, and family functioning using a mixed-methods approach.

Methods. Families were recruited from a single non-profit service dog organization in the US. Participants consisted of children and adolescents ages 4-17 with an ASD diagnosis as well as their legal parent or caregiver. Using a cross-sectional design, we recruited families who had previously received an autism service dog (treatment group) and families who were awaiting future placement of an autism service dog (control group). Caregivers completed an online survey containing a series of standardized parent-proxy and parent self-report measures. Data was analyzed using a series of hierarchical multiple linear regression models controlling for child covariates (age, gender) or caregiver/family covariates (age, gender, household income, household size).

Results. Data collection is ongoing and will terminate in May 2021. Preliminary analyses were conducted among N=62 families (n=30 with a service dog, n=32 on the waitlist). Preliminary results indicate a significant relationship between having a service dog and better child sleep, including better sleep initiation and duration and less sleep anxiety/co-sleeping. However, preliminary results do not indicate a significant relationship between having a service dog and child functioning (ASD symptoms, problematic behaviors, and social behavior), caregiver functioning (parenting strain, sleep disturbance, and depression), or family functioning (family communication and daily activities). Accompanying qualitative data will help situate quantitative findings.

Discussion. Many complementary and alternative treatments for children with ASD, including autism service dogs, are popular among the ASD community but lack a scientific evidence base. This research provides a preliminary exploration of the effects of autism service dogs on both the child and family unit. Preliminary results suggest potential benefits to child’s sleep, but minimal benefits to child behavior and caregiver and family functioning. However, results from the full sample size will be more definitive.