Animal Assisted Therapy (AAT)

“Buttercup” A Speech Therapist’s Best Friend

Lois and Buttercup

The overall objective of speech-language pathology services is to optimize individuals’ ability to communicate and swallow, thereby improving quality of life, according to the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association (ASHA).1

In grad school we were taught to use flashcards, pictures, board games and workbooks to meet this objective. More recently, speech-language pathologists have been successfully utilizing computer-based techniques to meet communication goals.

Although all of these are useful modes of learning, none is as motivating and enriching as an animal. Therapy animals interact with students unconditionally, without words, and in a straightforward way, creating an atmosphere that motivates them to expand their skills and strengthens their determination to persevere in spite of obstacles and frustrations.

Animal-assisted therapy (AAT) is a useful modality that can be incorporated easily into the therapy session. When used in learning environments, animals invoke trust, empathy and attachment and facilitate relationship-building between the patient and therapist.

Buttercup, a 2-year-old Vietnamese potbelly pig, is a certified AAT animal. Potbelly pigs are clean, loving, and the fourth smartest animals in the world. Buttercup began socializing and visiting schools at 12 weeks old, playing and showing his tricks to students in different grade levels. Today, Buttercup works with both children and adults.

Regardless of their age or ability, all patients look forward to and benefit from his visits. When Buttercup is present, students sit quietly, share, wait their turn, and interact with peers and teachers. Inappropriate behaviors dramatically decrease when he visits. Students learn to be responsible and take care of his needs for food, drink, walk, rest and toileting. In turn, they become more aware of their own necessities.

Nonverbal students construct sentence strips, picture exchange, sign or gestures to choose an activity to do with Buttercup. Many will do their best at verbalizations in an attempt to greet or interact with him. A therapy session that involves Buttercup leads to an increase in verbalizations, communicative initiations and eye contact.

Students with emerging language skills talk to Buttercup more readily than they will to a therapist. They ask him questions like,” What would you like for lunch?” “How was your day?” or “Would you like to be brushed?” Language goals are enhanced in his presence. Vocabulary, concepts and descriptors can be targeted in a fun, hands-on approach.

Students teach Buttercup tricks, read books to him, and review vocabulary and spelling when encouraged. They become his teacher. A student who uses language only to make requests initiated his first conversational exchange with Buttercup.

Students who have very little social exchanges with the general school population are besieged with friends and questions when they walk Buttercup through the hallway. A young man who had extreme challenges talking to girls took Buttercup for a walk and was soon surrounded by them. He had no choice but to interact and made two good friends that day.

Occupational therapists use Buttercup for sensory integration and fine motor coordination. Who does not want to pet, rub and brush him?
Potbelly pigs are perfect animals to take to therapy sessions. They are small, calm, sensory-rich, oil-free and sturdy.

While dogs are usually excellent therapy animals, some children run from the room, hold their ears, turn away, or throw a tantrum when they see one. A pig is a new experience, and students want to touch him right away. Their prickly hair makes petting them a pleasure. Many students ask for Buttercup whenever they get a chance. When this type of request comes from a child who has never spoken a full sentence, it’s cause for excitement.

Why the name Buttercup? There’s no better way to make a quick assessment and have students practice articulation skills.

Diadochokinetic rate is an assessment tool that measures how quickly an individual can produce a series of rapid, alternating sounds with accuracy. These sounds may be one syllable such as “puh,” two or three syllables such as “puh-tuh-kuh,” or familiar words such as “patty cake” or “Buttercup.” Therefore, simply using his name is both an assessment and therapy.

A growing number of therapists and organizations have been breaking the barrier and making a connection through the use of AAT. Animals can help bridge the gaps in communication, social and life skills among students, particularly those who are not receptive to traditional therapy techniques.

Animals can enrich our lives beyond measure, but they are a serious responsibility. Therapists should educate themselves about the animals they choose and have realistic expectations. Be prepared to meet their needs, and give yourself time to bond.

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