Pet therapy and autism, what are the benefits

Source: Pet therapy and autism

Pet therapy and autism

An animal does not judge, does not reject, gives itself totally, stimulates smiles and helps socialization: this is why Pet Therapy it is particularly suitable for children and teenagers with autism. We talk about it with Alberto Dal Negro, President of the Social Cooperative gliAmicidiSari e Alessandra Chinaglia, psychologist and psychotherapist who collaborates with the Social Cooperative A Passo d'Asino.

  • What is Pet Therapy
  • Having a pet is not Pet Therapy
  • Pet Therapy and Autism: Why Animals Help
  • Pet Therapy and Autism: The Benefits
  • Dogs and autism
  • Onotherapy and autism
  • Hypotherapy and autism

What is Pet Therapy

«We speak generically of Pet Therapy - begins Dal Negro - but the more correct term is Animal Assisted Interventions (IAA), a way of supporting the person that the country was the first European country to regulate with precision in 2022. There are 3 types of intervention:

·that therapeutic, with the presence of health personnel (TAA), in which the animal is a facilitator of the rehabilitation process;

·that educational, (EAA), in which the involvement of the animal acts as a natural catalyst of attention, facilitating the cognitive and behavioral learning process at the basis of the educational method;

·recreational and recreational activities (AAA), even episodic and less structured, as interventions in the class group for an education to respect the animal world ".

I beneficiaries can be children, the elderly, people with any kind of discomfort or difficulty. By law, the animals indicated for such interventions are only dogs, cats, rabbits, horses and donkeys certified according to health, behavioral and aptitude requirements. "To be successful is the relationship that is established between animal and user, a harmony that becomes rich in meaning and produces beneficial effects of an affective, relational, communicative, cognitive type and improves psychological and / or physical skills on a wide range".

Read also: Autism, how to recognize the first symptoms

Having a pet is not Pet Therapy

"But let's dispel a myth: animals do not have healing abilities per se, as people often think - Chinaglia specifies -. Of course, being close to a pet brings general benefits and emotional relief, but between having a pet at home and participating in Pet Therapy sessions there is the same difference that passes between confiding one's problems to a friend and turning to a psychologist. . The professionalism of the operators is decisive". The key role is in fact played by the relationship between the animal and its handler, as Dal Negro also explains: "I bring to the user the harmonious and balanced understanding that exists between me and my dog, a being sentient able to 'feel' in depth what moves inside my emotional world as well as in that of the child he meets or the mother who accompanies him (figure, according to our experience, always present in the sessions and equally involved), moving with precision according to needs and rhythms suited to that specific situation, offering the child opportunities for expression consistent with his abilities and allowing, gradually, to express his or her potential to the fullest ».

Read also: 10 things every autistic child would like adults to know

Pet Therapy and Autism: Why Animals Help

«Perhaps not everyone knows - continues Dal Negro - that the theory of Pet Therapy of the child neuropsychiatrist Boris Levinson was born in the early 50s precisely from a fortuitous interaction between his dog and a child with autism spectrum disorders. These children often have expression blocks and difficulties that limit their potential. They are very sensitive people but with relationship difficulties, closed in a kind of bubble from which an animal stimulates them to get out giving them the opportunity to create new communication channels. Our first goal, in support of parents, is recognize their great unexpressed potential focusing on their qualities and not on the problem and dysfunctional behaviors ». It is therefore essential that the operator has an attitude of openness, empathy, listening and absence of prejudice, also putting aside expectations on the times with which the child will want to enter into a relationship with the animal and with what results: "My presence it just has to reinforce the behavior of my pet and that of the parent and the educator, reassure the child and give him confidence. Which is not giving up acting, but rather, devoid of any expectation, letting the great intelligence of child and animal bring to light all hidden talents and unexpressed potential. Because this is what we see every single day… ».

Read also: Autism: what it is. Symptoms, causes, signs and strategies for parents

Pet Therapy and Autism: The Benefits

The observable beneficial effects, in very variable periods of time, can be different and do not remain limited to the child-animal relationship: "The animal is an activator of ways of doing and unlocks, but then this training can also show effects in the relationship with peers and with adults. There are many cases in which parents have observed great improvements in their ability, for example, to play in the park with other children, ”says Dal Negro. "The improvements in children are the result of an underlying psychodynamic process - explains Chinaglia - From a generic condition of uncontactability on a physical, psychic and verbal level, a change in the emotional and relational climate can be observed first of all".

1. Relational openness. Children show an acceleration on the relational level through simple caring actions such as stroking the animal or feeding it. The interaction with another living being, of which he does not know needs and will, makes him come out of his own schemes and challenges him from an empathic point of view.

2. Longer attention spans. It is a cognitive improvement that involves the child's ability to focus on the animal and not get distracted.

3. Greater ocular coupling. Autistic children often have an elusive look with adults. With animals, however, there are no difficulties, because the child feels less judged and more at ease and thus looks the animal more easily in the eyes.

4. Reduces anxiety and stereotypies. The presence of an animal has a containing and relaxing action and this also has a positive impact on the repetitive movements that some autistic children show such as flickering of the hands, ecolallazioni (repetitions of phrases, words or sounds), walking on tiptoe.

5. Motor improvement. It improves coordination and the ability to perform complex and fine actions, from unhooking the leash to riding a horse or the delicacy needed to clean a donkey. An animal brings motivation where it is not there, encourages you to do more.

6. Communicate intentionally. It may happen that users who almost do not speak pass by and say a few words: first they seem to be irrelevant to what is happening, but then a communicative intentionality can emerge.

Dogs and autism

Alberto Dal Negro, specialized in dog therapy, explains the dog's strengths: «It is suitable for relational, affective and care activities. However, compared to a rabbit, for example, it has a much wider range of stimulations, he is not afraid, so he puts his own into the relationship and is proactive. Then empathetic, feels the emotions of others and therefore also knows how to respect a child who, for example, shows disinterest in him for forty-five minutes and then is available for a single caress. The treatments take place mainly indoors, but, if considered more functional, it is also possible to take the dog out for a walk: already taking a leash in your hand increases self-esteem as you feel that you have full responsibility for it. There are no pre-packaged methods, you need to be good observers and support dog and child in the actions they both propose. We usually offer 6-7 meetings, for 1 hour a week, and this cycle already offers the first results that reveal in many cases a halo effect outside the experience: after the interruption of the sessions due to lockdown I observed that with many small users did not have to "start from scratch", but that the experience of the previous months had sedimented and activated a process that continued by itself, as if the intervention had never stopped ».

Read also: What is onotherapy, donkey therapy

Onotherapy and autism

"The donkey's attitudes are a bit halfway between the relational ones of the dog and the motor ones of the horse - explains Alessandra Chinaglia, expert in onotherapy - Just as the latter can be ridden, but his docile and patient inclination moves him much more on a relationship work strongly indicated for children with autism spectrum ».

1. Care activity. «First of all, through the care of the donkey (brushing, grooming, cleaning of hooves, eyes and nose) the activities of primary care are developed, which implies learning to care for oneself and for others. This develops the fine dexterity of children ».

2. Great interpersonal skills. The encounter with a living being then triggers the recognition of the other as distinct from oneself and develops empathic skills that lead to the understanding that the other has needs different from ours, with which to try to get in tune: "Here we treasure of the donkey's great interpersonal skills, which is always willing to interact but waits, placid: a dog immediately requires an intense relationship, engages you in the relationship and this is its strong point, but it is not good for everyone. The donkey, on the other hand, is calmer and this characteristic can be used in a clinical sense, because it allows the child to relate to his times. The horse, on the other hand, is more reactive and nervous and inspires a certain awe ».

3. Containment capacity. The donkey with its size combined with its slow and calm movement, however, has the ability to contain any aggressive actions of the child which, even when they occur, do not break down the animal which never reacts and supports the outburst. Its body heat and the softness of the fur are body and tactile sensations that release tension, reassure and relax anxieties.

4. Increase self-esteem. "Climbing on the back of the animal is an immediate factor in increasing self-esteem, because the child must learn to guide it (with an effort also in motor coordination), but at the same time he must rely on the animal that is carrying him".

5. When the donkey stalls. Naturally, it happens that the donkey gets stuck and doesn't really want to carry out a certain command: «For the child this" road accident "is an excellent excuse to face his own frustration and perhaps even aggression. The autistic child tends to find it difficult to accept situations that contradict him and here he is faced with an unexpected situation which little can be rebelled against because it is not caused by an educational figure but by an animal: he must therefore accept the fact and the limit brings him. to a relational effort to try to move the donkey by trying not to escalate but by understanding the reasons for the blocking of the animal, which are always there ».

Hypotherapy and autism

The horse stimulates the relational aspect with body heat, relaxes anxieties with its oscillatory trend, but its strong point is its motor improvement: «You can work a lot on the functional elements, from motor coordination, to balance to oculo-manual coordination through paths and exercises on horseback. However, it has limitations that do not make it suitable for all children, since its size can be a little scary and its reactive personality can be difficult to manage »explains Dal Negro.

The interviewees

Alberto Dal Negro he is President of the Social cooperative the murderers, founded by him in Bolzano in 2003, which has about 40 operators and is active in pet therapy with support projects for children, adults and the elderly with over 5.000 interventions carried out to date. He is the author of the book "Pet Therapy: the therapeutic power of animals" (Macro Editions, 2022) and "Peter and the wolf dog. Bullidog: overcoming bullying with the help of dogs"(Amrita Turin Editions - 2022)


Alessandra Chinaglia, psychologist and psychotherapist, collaborates with the Child Neuropsychiatry Department of the Como Hospital. Since 2022 you have been Head of the therapeutic projects of the Social cooperative At Passo d'Asino, which since 2022 has been dealing with onotherapy in the therapeutic, educational and recreational-recreational fields mainly in the provinces of our city, Monza Brianza and the city.


  • autism
  • autism and children
add a comment of Pet therapy and autism, what are the benefits
Comment sent successfully! We will review it in the next few hours.