Animal Assisted Therapy for Special Needs Children
Kids and animals are a natural combination. Pets are great companions, and they teach the value of responsibility to children. For children with disabilities, this companionship is particularly invaluable, as they may have trouble making friends with kids their own ages because of low self-esteem. Animals give children an opportunity to connect with another living being, which is extremely important to any child's development.
Animal Assisted Therapy provides an experience with an animal that is non-judgmental, gives affection unconditionally, and provides opportunities for physical and emotional therapy. This includes therapy for strengthening muscles through horseback riding, low-impact swimming with dolphins, and a boost of confidence with service dogs and companion dogs. These animals promote confidence and self-esteem while motivating kids to interact and get stronger.
Riding horses for therapeutic purposes has helped children with a very wide range of disabilities, including Autism Spectrum Disorder, substance abuse, Multiple Sclerosis, Muscular Dystrophy, amputation, developmental disorders, spinal cord injury, brain injury, Cerebral Palsy, seizure disorders, visual and hearing impairment, learning disorders, emotional problems, anxiety disorder, behavioral problems, and other problems. Riding horses improves muscle tone, balance, posture, motor coordination, concentration, self-confidence, and self-esteem.
Equine Therapy can be tailored to individual needs, such as developing specific exercises to target specific muscles, and stretch, tone, and strengthen those muscles. The rocking motion of a horse's gait mimics the natural movement of the pelvis during walking, so riding trains the body to move in the correct way, and to develop muscles and coordination that will assist in standing and walking.
Nonverbal children are encouraged to use words to tell the horse what to do. Once a child begins to use the appropriate words, including the horse's name, they gain confidence, which leads to further speech development. Learning how to appropriately interact with the horse also teaches a child invaluable tools for developing social skills with the humans in their world.
Once a child becomes empowered and confident, this attitude is apparent in their outward demeanor. They will find that people around them will perceive them differently, on more equal terms, regardless of whether they are sitting in a wheelchair or have a history of emotional problems. And one of the best things about Equine Therapy is the fact that a child forgets that he or she is working hard because their therapy is so much fun!
Dolphin Assisted Therapy
Swimming with dolphins has an immediate effect on just about everyone who experiences it - it generates feelings of euphoria and joy. If you've ever watched a video of people swimming with dolphins, you'll notice the expressions of delight on each face as the dolphin tows them through the water. It is a magical experience.
Dolphins generally have a very positive attitude toward humans, they are very social animals, and they love to play. They like human contact, so they are easy to train, and they are extremely intelligent. Their exotic appearance, their gentleness, friendliness and playfulness, and the fact that the therapy is conducted in water all combine to create an ideal therapeutic experience.
Sometimes, the experience is used as a motivation to work because swimming with them is so much fun. Each time a child masters a task, he or she is allowed to pet, hug, kiss, stroke, or swim with the dolphin. This therapy increases a child's attention span and ability to focus, and motivates him or her to accomplish goals such as improving speech and breathing, fine motor skills and large motor skills, and cognitive thinking. The gentleness of the dolphins combined with the aquatic environment ease pain, decrease stress, and inspire a feeling of well-being. Dolphins also encourage children to swim, which increases flexibility, strength, and muscle tone.
Dolphin Assisted Therapy has had good results with children who have Cerebral Palsy, teenagers and adults with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, spinal cord injury, speech problems, phobias, anxiety, depression, autism, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, and a variety of emotional problems.
Dogs have one ability that horses and dolphins lack - they can live with a child. Dogs can be trained to assist a disabled child with specific problems. They can guide a child who is blind through a crowded street and across a busy street. They can alert a child that he or she is about to have a seizure. They can alert a child to a phone or a doorbell ringing, put on or shut off lights by using their nose or teeth, open and close doors, pick up something dropped, bring things, and help with balancing. Service dogs have helped children who have seizure disorders go out in public feeling safe and children with braces to feel more confident in their abilities to walk. They've even been trained to flip a switch to turn on a ventilator that has switched off for some reason, thereby saving their human companion.
Besides acting as service dogs, dogs can also act as four-legged therapists. When a child learns how to work with a dog and say the right words to get the dog to do what he or she wants, it's a great boost in their confidence. Children with problems learning how to read have participated in programs where they spend time reading, one-on-one, to the dog; since dogs do not comment or criticize, a child feels more comfortable and their fluency increases. Dogs have a calming influence, and can dispel anxiety, depression, and tension. They reduce stress in an academic and in a home environment. Dogs also motivate a child to do physical therapy by encouraging activities such as walking, jumping, and running.
These are just three examples of animals that work with people in therapeutic situations. Animal Assisted Therapy is being used much more frequently these days, and more research has been done to prove its benefits. For any parent who has watched a withdrawn child light up when their four-legged or finned therapist enters, animal assisted therapy has already proved its effectiveness.