This senior study is an evaluation of the effect of a service dog upon the pragmatic language skills of a child with autism. This is a quantitative and qualitative analysis of data collected by means of two parent-reported psychological tests and film footage of the child. The participating child was filmed prior to the introduction to the service animal and then seven days later, as well as immediately after introduction to the dog and then seven days later. The parents of the participating child scored their child in two standardized psychological measures prior to the introduction to the service animal and after a six month period follow-up. Changes in behavioral skills and communication capabilities specific to the use of pragmatic language were analyzed by comparing the prior and post sets of data. It is hypothesized that the placement of a service dog with the autistic child will result in improvements in the child's ability to use pragmatic language, and thus benefit the child in the areas of communication and socialization.
Hometown: : Oak Ridge, TN
Senior Study Title: “The Effect of the Use of a Service Dog on Pragmatic Language in a Child with Autism”
Advisor: Dr. Jason Troyer, Assistant Professor of Psychology
It’s not just that there aren’t a lot of undergraduates conducting research on the effects of service dogs on children with autism – there aren’t a lot of scientists, period, who are trying to figure out how Man’s Best Friend can decrease some children’s autistic severity.
Andrew Salpas, who graduated summa cum laude from the College in May of 2009, can claim that on his vitae now as he applies for graduate schools.
Salpas settled on the subject of his Senior Study after finishing a practicum at Wilderwood Service Dogs, a not-for-profit organization located in Maryville that specializes in providing service dogs specifically trained to handle the challenges of Spectrum Disorders and other neurological impairments.
Through the College’s Center for Strong Communities, the College’s Division of Behavioral Science learned in early 2008 that Wilderwood Service Dogs and president Tiffany Denyer wanted unbiased, scientific evidence for what she and others had long been eyewitnesses to – service dogs being able to interrupt self-stimulatory behaviors, calm anxieties and improve communication in autistic children.
Several of the College’s psychology professors, including Dr. Chad Schrock and Dr. Ariane Schratter met with Denyer to find out more about her training, her clients and her anecdotal research. They were all early in the conversation when Salpas told his professors that he was interested in obtaining a practicum that would strengthen his understanding of the research process.
“I knew that research would be a major emphasis of mine in graduate school,” Salpas explained. “I have a great interest in the research process. I wasn’t terribly picky about the subject matter; I just told them that I would be interested in any research available.”
Almost immediately, Salpas was brought into the discussion about Wilderwood and tasked with helping devise studies for other psychology majors that would yield useful data.
And so when planning for his own Senior Study rolled around, he decided to focus on one particular area of interest – the effect of a service dog on an autistic child’s pragmatic language skills.
“Pragmatic language is the language of socialization,” the recent graduate explained. “It’s what we use to express our interests to others, our intentions. Current research suggests that deficits in pragmatic language are a unifying feature of autistic disorders.”
Salpas and his advisors knew that the study wouldn’t be easy.
“When you pick a topic that requires groundbreaking research, you can’t replicate other methodology,” said Dr. Jason Troyer, assistant professor of psychology and Salpas’ Senior Study advisor. “I saw tremendous growth in Andrew, in his ability to set up original research.”
Salpas’ written study includes an in-depth explanation of autistic disorder and common interventions for autistic children. Separate chapters explain the methods of his study and the results.
Technically, Salpas’ research evolved into a case study because it follows one autistic child and one of Wilderwood’s service dogs, thus providing more qualitative findings than quantitative.
Focusing on one child also made the study more manageable for the study’s one-year timeframe.
(All participants were treated in accordance with the American Psychological Association’s Ethical Principles of Psychologists and Code of Conduct.)
One of Salpas’ first tasks was to measure the pragmatic language skills of the autistic child prior to the introduction of the service dog in order to get a “baseline evaluation.” He asked parents to score their child in two standardized psychological instruments, the Children’s Communication Checklist 2 and the Pervasive Development Disorder Behavioral Inventory (PDDBI).
Salpas then filmed the child with the dog during their first meeting. From that, he documented behaviors.
Seven days after the introduction of the service dog (to which the child is constantly tethered), he filmed the child again in similar surroundings and under similar circumstances.
After six months, Salpas asked the parents to complete the same two standardized psychological instruments that they had before the introduction of the service dog.
Salpas found that the child’s “echolalic utterances” and tendency to repeat phrases that weren’t contextually appropriate lessened with the introduction of the service dog. After six months with the service dog, parents reported (through the standardized tests) specific areas of improvement, such as the child searching for the right words in conversations, answering questions with enough information without being overly precise and showing flexibility in adapting to unexpected situations.
The “whys” and “hows” of the effects still need to be studied, Salpas said. Some theories suggest that dogs have a calming effect on children and because of anxiety reduction, autistic children are better able to concentrate on activities like communication.
Troyer said Salpas’ study was, for many reasons, the “ideal” research scenario for an undergraduate.
“It was original research that is important to the field and of practical importance to families,” he explained. “Andrew partnered with a non-profit agency that couldn’t do this on its own, and it was local, so this was a community partnership between Wilderwood and the College.”
Troyer added that because Salpas’ research and resulting study were a part of a larger project involving other students and professors, he could see the complexity of what was going on while, at the same time, learn how to navigate the dynamics of research by a team.
“This is real-world research. It’s challenging, but the most productive,” Troyer said, adding that Salpas’ work exceeds what’s typically done on the undergraduate level.
“Andrew’s study is easily more complicated, more detailed and more applicable than my master’s thesis,” the professor said. “It’s truly graduate-level research.”
Salpas is planning to submit his study for publication in a scholarly journal. He and the psychology department faculty hope it leads to more scientific studies involving service dogs and their effects on autistic children.
Looking back, Salpas said the undergraduate research experience was the highlight of his time at Maryville.
“The way faculty not only assisted me, but brought these [research] opportunities to my attention and the way that they recognized and embraced my interests – these are some of the most important things that I got out of my time here,” he said.