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Abstract

Animals are commonly present in classrooms and may be an important tool in enhancing children’s experiences, especially in inclusion classrooms that provide integrative learning for both typically developing children and children with special needs.

The purpose of this study was to investigate the impact of animal-assisted activities on children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) as well was typically developing (TD) children in inclusion classrooms.

Ninety-nine children from 15 inclusion classrooms were divided into groups of three (two TD children and one child with ASD) to take part in free play sessions with either two guinea pigs or a set of toys. These sessions were videotaped, and the children’s behavior was coded. Behaviors that were coded included interactions and emotional display, either positive (smiling, laughing) or negative (frowning). Furthermore, triggers for laughing were classifi ed into three categories: social interaction, animal interaction, and observation of animals or peers.

Both TD children and children with ASD showed increased positive emotional display in the presence of animals compared to toys, but TD children laughed more during the toy sessions while children with ASD laughed more in the animal sessions. Further examination of laughter triggers revealed that TD children laughed due to social interaction while children with ASD laughed due to observation and animal interaction.

These results indicate that guinea pigs can positively enhance the experiences of children in inclusion classrooms and encourage laughter in children with ASD. Future studies could further our knowledge by investigating similar impacts with other animals or examining the correlation between specific animal behaviors and laughter triggers.

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