A quarterly publication of the Autism Research Institute

The Autism Research Review International is quarterly publication of the Autism Research Institute

Spring, 2019 | Number 2, Volume 33

Dogs help relieve stress in adults with ASD

Animal-assisted therapy (AAT) can help reduce stress-related problems in adults with high-functioning autism spectrum disorders(ASD), a new study reports. 

Carolien Wijker and colleagues enrolled 53 adults with ASD, all with normal to high intelligence, in their study. All of the participants had high scores on a scale measuring stress. Half of the participants participated in AAT, while the other half were placed on a waiting list. 

The intervention consisted of 10 weekly 60-minute one-on-one sessions conducted by therapists who specialized in working with individuals with ASD. A trained therapy dog participated in each session. 

The researchers assessed each individual in the therapy group at baseline, after 10 weeks of therapy, and at a follow-up 10 weeks after therapy ended. Control group members were assessed at the same time. The researchers compared therapy participants to controls using questionnaires (filled out by participants as well as by spouses, other family members, or friends) measuring perceived stress, symptoms of stress, impairments in social responsiveness, and self-esteem. 

The researchers report that compared to the waiting list condition, “animal-assisted therapy with a dog reduced perceived stress and agoraphobia symptoms in adults with ASD.” Furthermore, they say, “the results implied that AAT reduced impairments in social responsiveness as rated by participants’ spouses, close family members, or friends.”In addition, they note, “There was an indication that depressive symptoms reduced due to the therapy.” They also comment that “participant adherence to the therapy program was noteworthy,” with all participants taking part in at least nine of the ten sessions, and that the positive effects were still seen at follow-up. No significant effects were detected for self-esteem. 

The researchers note that the significant effect on agoraphobia was surprising. They say, “A possible explanation for the effect on agoraphobia may be that during the last three sessions of the intervention, participants, accompanied by the therapist and the dog, worked on social fears and controlling environmental stimuli by leaving the mental health facility and practicing in the outside world.”

The researchers conclude, “The remarkable adherence to the therapy program by study participants and the program’s clinically relevant effects indicate that AATwith dogs can be used to reduce perceived stress and symptoms of agoraphobia, and to improve social awareness and communication in adults with ASD with normal to high intelligence.”


“Effects of dog assisted therapy for adults with autism spectrum disorder: an exploratory randomized controlled trial,” Carolien Wijker, Ruslan Leontjevas, Annelies Spek, and Marie-JoseEnders-Slegers, Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, March 21, 2019 (free online).Address: Carolien Wijker, GGZ Oost Brabant,P.O. Box 3, 5427 ZG Boekel, The Netherlands,[email protected].