Hidden in plain sight: an interspecies quality of engagement tool to assess engagement and consent of donkeys and autistic children during interaction sessions

Michelle Whitham Jones
Presentation date

There is a wealth of research claiming the benefits of Equid Assisted Interactions (EAI’s) but these are often anthropocentric and fail to include measures that capture the abilities as well as disabilities of their participants. This study concentrates on the dyadic relationship between pre or nonverbal autistic children and their donkey partners during interaction sessions.

Benefits of EAI’s for autistic children may derive from an extension of their social curriculum by visiting the EAI centre. They may thrive from engaging with the staff and volunteers, experiencing new sensory stimulations, spending time outdoors and being immersed into an environment that is deemed ‘autism friendly.’ Similarly, the equids may also enjoy an extension of their social curriculum with additional interaction with favoured staff or equid companions, additional food, grooming or rewarding husbandry prior to or after each interaction. Ultimate benefits may be regular veterinary attention and high and consistent standards of care that could result in an extended life.

Any of the above benefits are acceptable and potentially positive, however, none of them stem directly from the dyadic interactions themselves. Prior to clarifying potential benefits of EAI, I argue that it is essential to first measure the quality of engagement between heterospecific participants. Controlling variables for EAI research is notoriously difficult, not least because of the individuality of participants; some show environmental preference, staff or partner preference. Clarifying the quality of engagement between participants provides an understanding about the nature of each individual’s behavioural responses relative to the other. Knowing the quality of engagement between participants, creates an opportunity to disentangle variables and interpret the potentially confounding causality of perceived benefits.

By designing and utilising a unique Quality of Engagement Tool (QET) to measure engagement of both donkeys and children, I was able to capture the emerging relationship between human and equid participants. I observed how heterogeneity of character and personal preference, irrespective of species, affected levels of engagement. The tool identified differences in engagement seeking or avoiding that varied, with different partners.

The QET was administered by one person observing the donkey and another person observing the child. This was to avoid the possibility that one member of the dyad would gain a larger share of observer’s attention with unusual, amusing or neotenic displays, rendering the other partners subtle behaviours unintentionally missed by casual observation. This observational bias, possibly quite common in other EAI sessions, meant that concern signals could be unintentionally, hidden in plain sight. Donkeys are generally more stoic than horses and may only display subtle behaviour changes when in pain or fearful). My findings show that QET enables subtle nuances to be detected in real-time and decisions made about the suitability, health and wellbeing of either participant. The consent of both partners was easily observable, thus providing a voice for otherwise non-verbal participants. Comparable data results identified the affect and importance of partner’s engagement behaviour reinforcing the need to include both species as equal participants in the methodology.