In Jamaica, approximately 600 0f 40,000 births per year see children being diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). This statistic has led Dr Rochelle Allison Bailey to conceptualise an early animal therapy intervention strategy — Rabbits for autistic kids — to improve the outcomes of children on the spectrum.
Dr Bailey, in an interview with the Jamaica Observer, said an early intervention can be introducing a pet to your autistic child, and noted that some children may feel intimidated by having a larger animal like a dog. Thus, a rabbit will make for an "excellent companion".
Once they are able to socialise and form a bond, she argued, pet rabbits can be a great comfort to autistic children.
"Rabbits have a particular routine. They stick to a specific schedule, and they are also quiet just like most autistic children. Hence, they make for a more relatable pet. Rabbits are safe, non-threatening, and soothing to watch and pet. It has been proven that having a rabbit and being able to pet them helps to reduce stress and anxiety thus promoting positive feelings of care, love and empathy," Dr Bailey said.
ASD is a developmental condition that affects a person's ability to socialise and communicate with others. People with ASD can also present with restricted and/or repetitive patterns of behaviour, interests or activities.
Further, the term spectrum refers to the degree in which the symptoms, behaviours and severity vary within and between individuals.
"Some people are mildly impaired by their symptoms, while others are severely disabled. Boys are four times more likely than girls to develop symptoms of ASD and children across all demographic and socioe-conomic groups experience ASD," Dr Bailey told Your Health Your Wealth.
"Children with autism can also develop mental health conditions such as anxiety disorders, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder [ADHD] or depression. According to the DSM-5-TR, to meet the diagnostic threshold of autism, someone would have to experience persistent differences in all of these areas," she added, listing social – emotional reciprocity, non-verbal communication behaviours used in social interactions and developing, maintaining, and understanding relationships.
Dr Bailey is in the process of gifting a family with an autistic child a rabbit to see if it will help to improve his social skills and how he interacts with the world at large.
She said, "Rabbits also tend to be quite shy and withdrawn until they get to know you. Once they are comfortable and a sense of trust has been built, you can see their true personality emerge. This shared experience in the autistic community helps them to connect with rabbits more deeply than other animals."
Further, Dr Bailey told Your Health Your Wealth that unlike dogs, rabbits don't require extensive care.
"They don't need to be showered as they self-groom and placing them in a body of water can lead to a panic attack or they may become hypothermic as their coats are dense. They are easy to feed. They feed on grass or hay and they can be fed pellets of any kind, rabbit pellets, chicken feed or pig pellets.
"In comparison to most small pets, they also have one of the longest life expectancies; they can live anywhere between 10-15 years once they are properly cared for, thus the period of bonding remains unbroken for over a decade."
Moreover, Dr Bailey said given that ASD is a developmental condition that begins early in life, having a cascading effect on developmental milestones, there is no known cure. But there are various effective treatments available.
"Early autism diagnosis means children can have early intervention, which can make a significant difference. Treatment options include education and development, including specialised classes and skills training, time with therapists such as speech and language and occupational therapists, and other specialists," she said.
"Behavioural treatments such as applied behaviour analysis (ABA), medication for co-occurring symptoms, combined with therapy and complementary and alternative medicine (CAM), such as supplements and changes in diet."
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