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Vitality From Experiences In Nature And Contact With Animals—A Way To Develop Joint Attention And Social Engagement In Children With Autism?

Kristina Byström, Patrik Grahn, Caroline Hägerhäll

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Animals are increasingly included in treatment for children with autism, and research has shown positive effects, such as increased social initiatives, decreased typical autistic behaviors, and decreased stress. However, there are still knowledge gaps, for example, on underlying mechanisms and effects from longer treatment duration. The purpose of this study is to contribute to these gaps and ask questions about the ways in which animals and nature can improve conditions for psychological development through support from therapists. The method is based on grounded theory. Data comes from a treatment model (duration 1½ years, a total of nine children), from environmental psychology and developmental psychology, both typical and atypical as in autism. The results consist of three key categories; reduce stress and instill calm, arouse curiosity and interest, and attract attention spontaneously. These three key categories are related to an underlying core variable, vitality forms, which was described by Daniel Stern and, according to him, is important in forming overall experiences. The starting point is the brain’s way of encoding many internal and external events based on movement perception. Here it is argued that the vitality forms from nature and animals are particularly favorable for effecting development-promoting interactions with a therapist.