Emotional Support Animals Effects on Social-Emotional Development of Children with Autism

[Shuo] For children in different countries, pets become a member of their families and are a source of security and friendship. As children grow up, they are more attached to their pets and will demonstrate greater empathy to other children (Daly & Morton, 2006; Poresky, 1996). For children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), this type of human animal interaction may play a unique role.

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Children with ASD typically struggle to establish and maintain social relationships (Petrina, Carter, & Stephenson, 2017). Some researchers have tried to explore the relationship between social-emotional development (SED) and growing up with pets, but less is known about the relationship between emotional support animals (ESA) and the SED of children with ASD. ESAs provide support, well-being, comfort, aid, companionship and affection to relieve psychologically or emotionally induced pain in persons with mental disabilities (Von Bergen, 2015). As children with ASD are being integrated into general education, they are socially interacting with their typically developing peers on a daily basis. The purpose of this research is to explore the effects of ESA on the SED of elementary school children with ASD, and to find out the positive changes occurring on the various interpersonal skills of children with ASD in a school setting.

Literature Review

Autism Spectrum Disorder

[Sharon] Autism is a pervasive developmental disorder that affects the child’s flexibility of thought, social interactions, and nonverbal and verbal communication (Wing & Gould, 1979). Not only do children with ASD lack the ability to recognize and interpret emotions in other people, they struggle to understand and regulate their own emotions (Dapretto et al., 2006). Children with a diagnosis of ASD are often socially isolated because of their lack of social skills due to low SED (Sofronoff, Dark, & Stone, 2011); therefore, children with ASD typically require social skills instruction and guidance from an early age, as well as assistance in emotional regulation (Mazefsky, pelphrey, & Dahl, 2012; Moss et al 2008). Kasari, Rotheram-Fuller, Locke, and Gulsrud (2011) examined if child-assisted therapy (CHILD) intervention and peer-mediated therapy (PEER) intervention could decrease the child’s social isolation. The CHILD intervention directly taught the children with ASD social etiquette such as taking turns, not interrupting, and being polite; whereas, the PEER intervention focused on the child with ASD’s school peers and taught them how to interact with one another. At the end of three months, the children with ASD showed marked improvement in their interpersonal social skills and less playground isolation. The children with ASD in this study were considered high functioning with little or no violent outbursts (Kasari et al., 2011). The purpose of the Kasari et al., (2011) study was to determine if therapeutic interventions could impact the child’s SED.

Social-Emotional Development

[Quynh] We define social-emotional development as an individual’s skills in the social and emotional aspects in accordance with their age. The development of these interpersonal and intrapersonal skills has been shown to be vital during the stages of an individual’s childhood, affecting both their mental health and academic achievements (Malti and Noam, 2016). Malti and Noam (2016) suggests that SED is widely recognized by most researchers in the community as a foundation of individual growth and development. They also described one of the fundamental features of SED as emotional regulation, or the ability to appropriately express emotions. Other key features have been described by Denham, Wyatt, Bassett, Echeverria, & Knox (2009) as multi-dimensional and include a range of concepts such as social competence, attachment, emotional competence, self-perceived competence, and temperament/personality. Denham et al. (2009) suggest that in order to study SED in depth, researching these five dimensions in a longitudinal study is the most appropriate method because child development occurs over the course of many years. Studies that do not take advantage of the longitudinal methods, in turn, are not subject to the benefits of multiple measures over a long period of time. In fact, longitudinal research can provide more reliable information about the SED of a child with ASD.

SED of Children with ASD

[Sharon] A longitudinal study can help determine if behavior problems, such as violent outbursts, are one-time incidences or evidence of low SED (Denham et al., 2009). Violent outbursts from children with ASD are caused by the child’s inability to regulate their emotions (Sofronoff et al., 2011). Emotional regulation is an important part of SED, because it enables an individual to modulate the intensity of both positive and negative emotions (Cappadocia, Weiss, & Pepler, 2012). There is an overabundance of research on the most common traits of autism such as repetitive behaviors, impaired social functioning, and communication dysfunction, but research is lacking in emotional regulation in children with ASD (Mazefsky, Pelphrey, & Dahl, 2012). A child that has the inability to regulate their emotions often has irritability, tantrums, aggression, and angry outbursts, which creates social dysfunction within the classroom (Hirano et al., 2010).

Irritability, tantrums, aggression, and angry outbursts are a result of maladaptive strategies to cope with the lack of emotional regulation (Sofronoff et al., 2011). Samson, Hardan, Podell, Phillips, and Gross (2014) compared a group of children with a diagnosis of ASD to a group of typically developing children. They were assessed on emotion regulation strategies and emotional reactivity. Samson et al., (2014) discovered that children with ASD did not use cognitive reappraisal to regulate emotions and often suppressed emotions. The conclusion was that children with ASD need therapeutic interventions in regard to emotional regulation and emotional expression. One such intervention could be the use of animal assisted therapy.

Emotional Support Animals and SED

[Meiling] Since the 1970s, animals have been used as a way to improve human physical, emotional, cognitive and social functioning (Poresky, 1996). According to Triebenbacher (1998), the development of human’s early social interaction is closely linked with the attachment to significant caregivers. The benefits of pet ownership and attachment to emotional support animals include decreasing emotional problems, promoting mental and physical health and providing unconditional love and opportunities for affection (Triebenbacher, 1998).

[Quynh] In one study, researchers looked at the effects of having a pet on the social and emotional aspects of adolescents with ASD. Using various questionnaires with Likert scales based on the three dimensions of pet ownership (responsibility, comfort, and companionship), they found that having high responsibilities of caring for a pet greatly increased how often the participants turned to the animals for support and comfort (Ward, Arola, Bohnert, and Lieb, 2017). However, because the study was not longitudinal, the researchers were not able to directly connect pet ownership to adolescents’ SED.

[Meiling and Shuo] Emotional support animals are actually indistinguishable from the family pets and include many types of animals, such as dogs, cats, rabbits and pigs (Von Bergen, 2015). Von Bergen (2015) clarifies that what separates ESAs from pets is that the owner needs to be diagnosed by a medical professional as having a mental disability. ESAs are not specifically trained, but by their nature and mere presence will be effective at helping the people with mental and emotional disabilities (Triebenbacher, 1998). The primary function of the ESAs and the principal service they offer is simply companionship (Von Bergen, 2015). Von Bergen (2015) also noted that due to the lack of training, the animal may cause some problems such as barking or smelling other people. Compared with the trained service animals, the ESAs can neither behave without flaws in the public places nor perform tasks to help people use public services appropriately (Von Bergen, 2015). Von Bergen (2015) points out that an ESA can help reduce a person’s depression and anxiety; therefore, an ESA could be allowed to accompany an individual as a reasonable accommodation for their disability.

Since ESAs help reduce an individual’s stress and anxiety, as well as provide emotional support for disability-related issues, an ESA might also influence the individual’s emotional regulation. However, there is a lack of research in regard to the relationships between ESAs and SED. In light of the benefits of ESAs and people with disabilities, further research is needed on the effects of ESAs on children with ASD and their SED.

ESA on SED of Children with ASD in Schools

[Meiling] Children with ASD lack the ability to establish social relationships and could benefit from ESAs (Grandgeorge et al., 2012). For children with ASD, animal-assisted interventions can provide children with a sense of security and protection, help the child calm down, and lend comfort and enjoyment (Burgoyne et al, 2014). [JJ] However, little to no research has been done regarding the effects of ESAs on the SED of children with ASD in a school setting (O’Haire et al, 2013). A number of factors necessitate a need for further research in this area. Therefore, school is an ideal setting to bridge the gap between children with ASD and typically developing peers (Lantz, Nelson, & Loftin, 2007). A school setting also offers the opportunity for longitudinal study.


[Quynh] Based on previous studies conducted on the SED of children, it is clear that more research is needed on those with ASD, especially when animals are concerned. There is a potential that ESA could have a strong correlation with children’s SED. Furthermore, most studies on SED are not completed over a long period of time. As previous literatures have suggested, it is best to conduct SED studies using the longitudinal method. Thus, we aim to explore the effects of ESA on the development of children with ASD using the mentioned method of study. On top of that, since most studies have already looked at children’s SED in the home environment, we propose a study in which their SED is evaluated in a school environment instead. By conducting the study in a school environment, we hope the results will show a different perspective of ESA’s effects on the SED of children with ASD.


[Meiling] What are the effects of an emotional support animal on the social-emotional development of elementary school children with autism spectrum disorder?


[Quynh] We hypothesize that the presence of an emotional support animal in the lives of elementary school children with autism spectrum disorder will positively correlate with an increase in their social-emotional development.


[Sharon] Worldwide, the rates of children with ASD have steadily risen; therefore, ASD touches every community. It can be challenging for children with ASD to learn in a normal classroom setting due to their lower SED, particularly when it comes to emotional regulation. It is important to discover therapies or resources that will facilitate the development of interpersonal skills for children with ASD, so that they can partake in the learning environment in classrooms with neurotypical children. 

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