Should autistic children and donkeys be equal participants?

Presentation date

We have seen a rise in research investigating equine assisted interventions to relieve problematic traits in children with autism. Parents have been exposed to promises about the potential changes that such interventions achieves but the evidence for non-verbal complex children with autism has been sadly thin and such research usually assumes equines are a homogenous group without considering that their individual characters and emotional state could play a role in the encounter.  Often Autism research focuses on dis-ability rather than the autists’ unique abilities which could provide an alternative lens into AAI. This project aims to mark a new era of multidisciplinary AAI research that answers Birke’s question ‘what’s in it for the animals’ by using The Qualitative Behaviour Assessment tool that includes welfare and emotional state of, in this case, donkeys, Minero et al. A Narrative Inquiry method measures both children and families interpretation of the encounters.

This research aims to identify if the synthesis of encounter between donkey and autistic child can (a) drive a new respect for equine- human sensibility whilst (b) providing a genuine enrichment experience for donkeys living in an animal welfare sanctuary and (c) could these sessions show parents and families the unique potential of their autistic child, evidence of a capacity that could facilitate a better understanding of the child’s perception?

  • Human Participants: 4 non-verbal Autistic children with complex needs between 4-8 years old
  • Donkey Participants: 4 AAI facilitators from a UK animal sanctuary.


  • Repeated Measures design with 2 non participant observers (one child, one donkey focused) with controlled conditions
  • Semi structured interviews were conducted with families, grooms and AAI staff as well as the children using augmentative communication
  • Early findings: are showing some correlation of outcomes between each child and donkey pair.