Illustrating her research, USC occupational therapist Olga Solomon plays a video of a severely autistic young boy and his parents: the boy avoids eye contact and ignores questions—both signs of the socially debilitating effects of the brain development disorder.
But in the next video Solomon plays—of the same boy playing fetch with a trained therapy dog—the child giggles wildly as the dog returns a thrown tennis ball. Somehow, the dog has managed to make a connection with the youngster, and the simple, but priceless, interaction brings his parents to tears.
Solomon, research assistant professor in USC’s Division of Occupational Science and Occupational Therapy, is investigating the social benefits of therapy animals for autistic children, funded, in part, by a 2008 Individual Award from USC’s James H. Zumberge Faculty Research and Innovation Fund of $23,000. For her project, “Animal Assisted Therapy as Socially Assistive Technology: Implications for Autism,” Solomon will analyze over 65 hours of video she’s collected since beginning her research into animal-assisted autism therapy in 2003. The videos, chronicling sessions with five autistic children from 3 to 14 years old, document breakthroughs in the children’s social interaction skills, increases in attention levels and improvements in family relationships.
“We want to articulate what’s going on in these interactions,” Solomon said. “We’ve collected very compelling data.”
The Zumberge award targets newer faculty to help them launch their research careers, according to the grant Web site. Solomon’s project mentor is Maja Mataric, professor of computer science and neuroscience and senior associate dean for research at the USC Viterbi School of Engineering. Mataric’s research delves into the use of robotics for socially assistive purposes, including rehabilitation.
“People used to think that rehabilitation was just for achieving physical goals,” Solomon said, “but it can also help someone improve socially.”
Solomon, who arrived at USC in 2005 and has been researching autism and communication since 1997, said that a walk in the park several years ago with her border collie led her to explore animal therapy for autistic patients. After fetching a Frisbee, her dog dropped the disc at the feet of a little girl nearby, who picked it up and gave it a toss. Her tearful father approached Solomon, explaining that his daughter was autistic, and such interaction was very rare. He offered to buy the dog “at any sum.”
“I never forgot that moment,” Solomon said.
Solomon hypothesizes that interactions with well-trained therapy dogs—which are simple, predictable and very rewarding social partners—help autistic children practice social interaction and fill gaps in social behaviors that didn’t develop earlier in childhood. In the future, she hopes to study the results of adding animal therapy to existing clinical programs for people with autism.
“Dogs could be like a catalyst in a chemical reaction,” she said.