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Should autistic children and donkeys be equal participants?

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Date presented: 
Sunday 7 August 2016
Abstract

We have seen a rise in research investigating equine assisted interventions to relieve problematic traits in children with autism. Parents have been exposed to promises about the potential changes that such interventions achieves but the evidence for non-verbal complex children with autism has been sadly thin and such research usually assumes equines are a homogenous group without considering that their individual characters and emotional state could play a role in the encounter. Often Autism research focuses on dis-ability rather than the autists’ unique abilities which could provide an alternative lens into AAI. This project aims to mark a new era of multidisciplinary AAI research that answers Birke’s (1) question ‘what’s in it for the animals’ by using The Qualitative Behaviour Assessment tool that includes welfare and emotional state of, in this case, donkeys, Minero et al (2) .A Narrative Inquiry method measures both children and families interpretation of the encounters.
This research aims to identify if the synthesis of encounter between donkey and autistic child can (a) drive a new respect for equine- human sensibility whilst (b) providing a genuine enrichment experience for donkeys living in an animal welfare sanctuary and (c) could these sessions show parents and families the unique potential of their autistic child, evidence of a capacity that could facilitate a better understanding of the child’s perception?
Human Participants: 4 non-verbal Autistic children with complex needs between 4-8 years old.
Donkey Participants: 4 AAI facilitators from a UK animal sanctuary.
Methodology:
Repeated Measures design with 2 non participant observers (one child, one donkey focused) with controlled conditions.
Semi structured interviews were conducted with families, grooms and AAI staff as well as the children using augmentative communication.
Early findings: are showing some correlation of outcomes between each child and donkey pair.

Hidden in plain sight: An interspecies quality of engagement tool to assess engagement and consent of donkeys and autistic children during interaction sessions

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Date presented: 
Wednesday 23 August 2017
Abstract

There is a wealth of research claiming the benefits of Equid Assisted Interactions (EAI’s) but these are often anthropocentric and fail to include measures that capture the abilities as well as disabilities of their participants. This study concentrates on the dyadic relationship between pre or nonverbal autistic children and their donkey partners during interaction sessions.
Benefits of EAI’s for autistic children may derive from an extension of their social curriculum by visiting the EAI centre. They may thrive from engaging with the staff and volunteers, experiencing new sensory stimulations, spending time outdoors and being immersed into an environment that is deemed ‘autism friendly.’ Similarly, the equids may also enjoy an extension of their social curriculum with additional interaction with favoured staff or equid companions, additional food, grooming or rewarding husbandry prior to or after each interaction. Ultimate benefits may be regular veterinary attention and high and consistent standards of care that could result in an extended life.
Any of the above benefits are acceptable and potentially positive, however, none of them stem directly from the dyadic interactions themselves. Prior to clarifying potential benefits of EAI, I argue that it is essential to first measure the quality of engagement between heterospecific participants. Controlling variables for EAI research is notoriously difficult, not least because of the individuality of participants; some show environmental preference, staff or partner preference. Clarifying the quality of engagement between participants provides an understanding about the nature of each individual’s behavioural responses relative to the other. Knowing the quality of engagement between participants, creates an opportunity to disentangle variables and interpret the potentially confounding causality of perceived benefits.
By designing and utilising a unique Quality of Engagement Tool (QET) to measure engagement of both donkeys and children, I was able to capture the emerging relationship between human and equid participants. I observed how heterogeneity of character and personal preference, irrespective of species, affected levels of engagement. The tool identified differences in engagement seeking or avoiding that varied, with different partners.
The QET was administered by one person observing the donkey and another person observing the child. This was to avoid the possibility that one member of the dyad would gain a larger share of observer’s attention with unusual, amusing or neotenic displays, rendering the other partners subtle behaviours unintentionally missed by casual observation. This observational bias, possibly quite common in other EAI sessions, meant that concern signals could be unintentionally, hidden in plain sight. Donkeys are generally more stoic than horses and may only display subtle behaviour changes when in pain or fearful). My findings show that QET enables subtle nuances to be detected in real-time and decisions made about the suitability, health and wellbeing of either participant. The consent of both partners was easily observable, thus providing a voice for otherwise non-verbal participants. Comparable data results identified the affect and importance of partner’s engagement behaviour reinforcing the need to include both species as equal participants in the methodology.

Measuring engagement between autistic children and donkeys

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Date presented: 
Thursday 5 April 2018
Abstract

There is a wealth of research claiming the ‘benefits’ of Equid Assisted Interactions (EAI’s), but these are often anthropocentric and describe ‘improvement’ to the human’s disability as the measurable benefit. This study concentrates on the dyadic relationship between pre or nonverbal autistic children and their donkey partners during interaction sessions.
Prior to clarifying potential ‘benefits’ of EAI, I propose that it is essential to first measure the quality of engagement between heterospecific participants. This provides contextual evidence about the nature of each individual’s behavioural responses relative to the other. Knowing the quality of engagement between participants, creates an opportunity to disentangle variables and interpret the potentially confounding causality of perceived benefits.
By designing and utilising a unique Quality of Engagement Tool (QET) to measure engagement of both donkeys and children, I was able to capture the emerging relationship between human and equid participants. I observed how heterogeneity of character and personal preference, irrespective of species, affected levels of engagement. The tool identified differences in engagement seeking or avoiding that varied, with different partners. The QET was designed to avoid the possibility that one member of the dyad would gain a larger share of observer’s attention, rendering the other partners’ subtle behaviours unintentionally missed by casual observation. This observational bias, possibly quite common in other EAI sessions, meant that welfare concern signals could be unintentionally, hidden in plain sight. Donkeys are generally more stoic than horses and may only display subtle behaviour changes when in pain or fearful. My findings showed that QET enabled subtle nuances to be detected in real-time and decisions made about the suitability, well-being and consent of either participant.

The Synthesis of Encounters among Autistic Children and donkeys: Can a mixed methods design show positive outcomes for both species?

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Date presented: 
Friday 20 May 2016
Abstract

Many studies that regard the effectiveness of animal assisted interventions are in fact only interested in the child, assuming that the animals in the research are a homogenous group whose characters and emotional states don’t play a part.
Both nonverbal autistic children and donkeys communicate with gesture and often with limited vocalisations. Both come from a social species and are sentient. Their individual emotional states must affect the other.
This study places both the nonverbal autistic children and the donkeys that facilitate their intervention as equal participants, thus recording both species responses using a qualitative behaviour analyses tool and a multispecies ethnographic approach.

The synthesis of encounters among autistic children and donkeys: Does this particular form of animal assisted intervention show positive outcomes for both species?

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Presentation details
Date presented: 
Friday 15 April 2016
Abstract

We have seen a rise in research investigating equine assisted interventions to relieve problematic traits in children with autism. Parents have been exposed to promises about the potential changes that such interventions achieves but the evidence for non-verbal complex children with autism has been sadly thin and such research usually assumes equines are a homogenous group without considering that their individual characters and emotional state could play a role in the encounter. Often Autism research focuses on dis-ability rather than the autists’ unique abilities which could provide an alternative lens into AAI. This project aims to mark a new era of multidisciplinary AAI research that answers Birke’s (1) question ‘what’s in it for the animals’ by using The Qualitative Behaviour Assessment tool that includes welfare and emotional state of, in this case, donkeys, Minero et al (2) .A Narrative Inquiry method measures both children and families interpretation of the encounters.
This research aims to identify if the synthesis of encounter between donkey and autistic child can (a) drive a new respect for equine- human sensibility whilst (b) providing a genuine enrichment experience for donkeys living in an animal welfare sanctuary and (c) could these sessions show parents and families the unique potential of their autistic child, evidence of a capacity that could facilitate a better understanding of the child’s perception?

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