The effects of Animal Assisted Therapy on autonomic and endocrine activity in adults with autism spectrum disorder: A randomized controlled trial

Carolien Wijker*, Nina Kupper, R. Leontjevas, Annelies A. Spek, M.J. Enders - Slegers

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleAcademicpeer-review

Abstract

Objective: Stress and its sequelae are very common in adults with autism spectrum
disorder (ASD), without an intellectual disability (ID). Animal-assisted therapy (AAT) has shown physiological stress-reductive effects in children with ASD. The aim of the current study was to examine the acute psychophysiological response to an AAT session, and to examine the longer-term stress-physiological effects of the intervention, up until 10 weeks post-treatment, in comparison to waiting-list controls.
Method: A randomized controlled trial with pre-intervention (T0), post-intervention (T1: 10 weeks) and follow-up (T2: 20 weeks) measurements of neuroendocrine and cardiovascular measures, was conducted in 53 adults with ASD (N=27 in intervention arm; N=26 in control arm). Within the intervention group, stress-physiological data were collected during the 5 th therapy session (acute effects). Data were analyzed with mixed models for outcome measures cortisol, alpha-amylase, heart rate variability and sympathetic activity.
Results: The AAT interventional session was significantly associated with reduced
cortisol levels (β=-.41, p=.010), while parasympathetic and sympathetic cardiovascular activity remained unaltered. No significant changes were found for stress-physiological measures at post-treatment time points.
Conclusions: Acute stress reduction, reflected in significant reduction in cortisol
levels, was found during an AAT session in adults with ASD, without ID. More research is needed to explore to what extent the specific factors of AAT have contributed to the decrease in cortisol and whether stress reduction is possible for the longer-term.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)36-44
JournalGeneral Hospital Psychiatry
Volume72
DOIs
Publication statusPublished - Jul 2021

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