Marguerite (Maggie) O’Haire has turned her childhood passion for animals into a budding career. As a 2008 graduate of Vassar College with a degree in psychology, O’Haire won a prestigious Fulbright scholarship to study animal assisted therapy at the Centre for Companion Animals in the veterinary school at the University of Queensland in Australia. When she completed her work there, she entered the school of psychology as a doctoral candidate.
From 2009-2011, O’Haire conducted research in animal assisted interaction in both public and private schools in Brisbane to determine if interacting with guinea pigs benefits children with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). High-functioning autistic children are mainstreamed, but their impaired social skills may leave them open to rejection by their peers, which adds to their isolation.
O’Haire’s research measured changes in social skills and stress levels to determine if the companion animals enlarged the children’s social spheres.
Guinea pigs are ideal for the research
She chose guinea pigs because they’re small, mild-mannered, social animals that are relatively low-maintenance and can be kept in a classroom. As an undergraduate, she had worked in equine animal assisted therapy, so she wanted to avoid the obvious drawbacks of using animals that had to be kept at another location to which children would have to travel. The cost of putting the study together was low, too, since she got guinea pigs from local rescue organizations and from the veterinary school.
Most of the research that has been done in animal assisted interventions with autistic children has used horses or dogs. “There’s only one other researcher to my knowledge who’s done a study with guinea pigs,” says O’Haire. “Although one study did use a combination of llamas, dogs and rabbits.”
She assigned two guinea pigs to classrooms of children from kindergarten through seventh grade. Everyone was involved in caring for the guinea pigs, holding them and otherwise interacting with them. But in each classroom there was one or more autistic child, who, paired with two randomly chosen typically developing peers, participated in O’Haire’s research. In one classroom, there were five autistic children.
In all, there were 64 autistic children and 128 other children in the program.
The school year is divided into four 10-week terms in Australia. For eight weeks each term, O’Haire met twice a week with the children for 20 minutes outside of the classroom. “I wanted them to have natural interactions with the animals, so I wasn’t trying to enforce any specific targeted goals,” she says. “I would ask the children what they wanted to do. I was just there to provide information and assistance as we went along to make sure that both the children and the animals were safe and they had all the materials they needed.”
The children were allowed to engage with the guinea pigs in any activities that interested in them. “This usually consisted of simple things like holding, feeding, grooming, weighing, taking pictures, building houses and mazes, etc.” O’Haire wanted to observe the children’s natural interactions with the animals.
She also held sessions in which all the kids played with toys instead of spending time with the guinea pigs. She videorecorded all the sessions and used two observers who had no connection to her research to watch the videos and log the children’s behaviors.
“We found that children were more social, happy and helpful in the presence of the animals, compared with the toys,” she says. “They were smiling more, talking more, laughing more, looking at their teacher and their peers more often, sitting closer to their peers.”
O’Haire used wristbands to take physiological measurements of emotional arousal by collecting data on continuous electrodermal activity. The kids wore them not only while caring for the guinea pigs, but also while playing with toys, reading quietly and reading aloud. She has not yet analyzed this data.
She also has not yet analyzed interviews with the children about their friendships and social networks to determine if interacting with the guinea pigs helped the autistic kids connect with their peers.
O’Haire’s research also included telephone, online and written surveys of parents and teachers, completed eight weeks before the program started, immediately before it started and immediately after it was completed.
The autistic children are more social
At the end of each term, “the children showed more social behavior, and that’s the core deficit for autism — impairment in their social interactions,” says O’Haire.
“Following the program, they were less withdrawn, more socially engaged with their peers and their teachers in the classroom. They showed more social skills.“
Most of the teachers were happy with the program. “They would tell me that when a kid was upset, he used to be uncontrollable, but now, going to the guinea pigs, he was controllable and would calm down,” says O’Haire.
Being in the program “gave the autistic kids something in common with their peers — something they could talk about and enjoy together. It brought out their personality.”
Having the guinea pigs also had a positive affect on the autistic children outside of the classroom. “The most common thing was that the children wanted to go to school for once, whereas before it was a struggle to get them to go,” O’Haire notes. “Now they enjoyed it, especially on days they knew they got to have time with the guinea pigs.”
On the weekends, eligible families who had suitable transportation and had signed an agreement to provide the required care for the guinea pigs could take them home.
Parents and teachers note the benefits of the guinea pigs
“Some other students in the school with behavior issues liked to come and have a break in the room and pet the guinea pigs,” said one of the teachers.
“The students with ASD seemed much more positive with the guinea pigs around,” another wrote on a survey.
“If she was around other children she doesn’t usually talk to and the guinea pigs were there, she had a lot more confidence,” was the comment of another teacher.
“He looks forward to days when he is going to work with the guinea pigs and will go to school happily,” observed a parent.
“All students in the classroom benefited from being involved with the program, as they learned about a wide range of skills, including patience, sharing, responsibility, etc.,” a teacher concluded. “Some of the more introverted children benefited as it encouraged them to mix more with other students when playing with the guinea pigs.”
Most guinea pigs were adopted
When the school year ended, most of the animals were adopted. “Roughly half were adopted by the teachers to continue the program on their own,” says O’Haire. “And the other half were adopted by families of the participants, both children with autism and their peers.”
She expects to submit her thesis, “The Effects of Animal Assisted Intervention for Children with Autism Spectrum Disorder and Their Peers in a Classroom Setting,” early in 2013.