This thesis explores engagement between autistic children and donkeys during Equid Assisted Activity (EAA) sessions. I present the blurred position of EAA in Human-Animal Research that results in unreliable methodology and understanding about the equids’ perceived abilities. I argue that ‘benefits of EAA’ explored in other research is a problematic concept, because of the heterogeneous nature of autism and the individual character differences between donkeys. Using narrative analysis and narrative ethology showed that autistic children and their donkey partners demonstrate diverse and complex engagement behaviours that cannot be reduced to an entity of benefits that applies to all individuals. Qualitative stories about autistic children and donkey interactions offered a broader understanding of who each participant was, resulting in their caretakers forming new accountabilities and making informed decisions about their participants’ wellbeing.
I questioned the quality of engagement in 15 reported studies on EAA and the methodological preference of only measuring and reporting human responses. In order to measure the quality of engagement between autistic children and donkeys I designed and tested a Quality of Engagement Tool (QET) that was reliable enough to be used in a number of research designs.
The QET identified that engagement behaviour of one partner was correlated with that of the other partner in the same session. Individuals (children or donkeys) engaged differently when interacting with a conspecific as opposed to a heterospecific. The stories presented through narrative analysis and narrative ethology, coupled with the findings from the QET are important for future research. Measuring outcomes for children would be highly dependent on their 3relationship with their equid partner or indeed if they had the same partner for the duration of the research therefore; equids and humans should be considered as equal participants. The thesis concludes with a summary of findings from this project and signposts future research directions.