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Title of the project:

Platform for psycho-pedagogical screening and interdisciplinary interventions (animal assisted occupational therapy) for the social-emotional enrichment of autistic children and their families

Director:

Alina Simona Rusu

Funding Agency:

Executive Agency for Higher Education, Research, Development and Innovation Funding (UEFISCDI), Romania

Code of the project:

PN-II-PT-PCCA-2013-4-0781

Number of contract:

333/01.07.2014

Duration:

2014-2017


Abstract of the project

Autism Transilvania Association (ATA) is one of the most successful Romanian associations founded by parents of autistic children that have been motivated to continuously find technical solutions not only to decrease the costs of the therapeutic interventions, but also to provide their children with the optimal expertise in terms of assessment and interventions. We aim to bring together two organizations that until now have been individually approached by ATA in the process of finding technical solutions for the optimal assessment of Autistic Spectrum Disorders (ASD) and for increasing the efficiency of the standard therapeutic procedures.

The major objective of the project is to create a consortium formed by Babes-Bolyai University, ATA and D&D Research (one of the most prestigious Romanian companies in the area of psychological testing), in order to develop a platform for psycho-pedagogical screening and interdisciplinary interventions for the social-emotional enrichment of autistic children and their families.

The platform will function around the following end products:

  1. a Center for Psycho-pedagogical Screening and Interdisciplinary Interventions (located at the daily center of ATA, Cluj-Napoca), aiming to support the social and educational integration of ASD children through specialized services of diagnosis and early intervention;
  2. Acquisition of a battery of psychometric tools already validated for Romanian population – the Centre will benefit from the following instruments for behavioral assessment and eligibility evaluation of social rehabilitation of persons with special needs: ADOS (Autism Diagnostic Observation Schedule), PEP-3 (Psychoeducational Profile) and an automatic tool for measuring emotional expressions (FACET biometric platform powered by iMotions Denmark);
  3. Design and implement Occupational Therapy Programs enhanced by animal assisted activities (dogs and horses) – Based on the highly professional psychometric evaluations of the ASD children, we aim to design two types of occupational therapy programs enhanced by animal assisted activities, such as: (a) one type (individual-centered) that can be easily integrated into the occupational therapy programs of the daily centered of ATA, which will be using therapy dogs, and (b) another type (family-centered) that will address not only the ASD children, but also their families, i.e., parents and siblings. The novelty of these types of programs is that they will be organized within the Sensory Integration paradigm (Ayers, 1972), aiming to use animals to motivate the children to improve their sensorial, social and learning abilities by interacting with naturally occurring stimuli;
  4. Providing educational component for parents and staff involved in the therapeutic programs of the ASD children, i.e., training in elements of occupational therapy and animal-assisted therapy, based on the specific socio-emotional needs of the children. Research indicates that families of ASD children may face extreme challenges in providing the necessary emotional and educational environment for them.

This project takes into consideration the family context of the ASD children and incorporates animals as naturally-occurring motivational agents in the therapeutic plans.

 

CO – Babes-Bolyai University

Director of the project – Alina Simona Rusu is Associated Professor at the Department of Special Education, Faculty of Psychology and Sciences of Education, Babes-Bolyai University (UBB, psihoped.ubbcluj.ro), director of the postgraduate course Animal Assisted Activities and Therapy for Persons with Special Needs. Her academic activity covers several domains (including interdisciplinary ones), such as Animal Psychology and Animal-Assisted Therapy (AAT). ASR has completed her PhD in Natural Sciences in 2004, at University of Zurich, Switzerland, with a complete PhD Fellowship from the Swiss National Fond (2000-2004).

After the completion of a distance-learning course in Animal Assisted Therapy (AAT) in 2006 (certificate awarded by Delta Society and University of North Texas, USA), ASR has initiated for the first time in Romania a postgraduate course in AAT, at the Faculty of Psychology and Sciences of Education, BBU. ASR is the author/co-author of two books in the field of AAT and the scientific study of human-animal interaction, and the author of several papers on these areas (e.g., Anthrozoos, Journal of Comparative Psychology). ASR is supervising scientific research work of undergraduate and master students in Animal Psychology and Animal Assisted Therapy.

From 2011 to 2013, ASR was the director of a research grant on the psycho-physiological effects of the human-animal interaction on the social abilities of autistic children (Project PN-II-RU-TE-3-2011-3-0080). From 2008 until now, ASR has started a scientific collaboration with Autism Transilvania Association (Cluj-Napoca), which implies the study of human-animal and robot-human interactions in the context of improving the social abilities of autistic children.

In 2010, ASR has completed an intensive training on emotion recognition and mindfulness techniques (led by Prof. Paul Ekman, PhD and Alan Wallace, PhD). In 2009, ASR was awarded by the Romanian Academy of Science with In Hoc Signo Vincens Price (Natural Sciences), which is a distinction offered every year to the best young investigator in his/her field.

ASR has participated to over 30 international conferences, and she was invited speaker at two prestigious universities (i.e., University of Bern and Konrad Lorenz Institute, Vienna). ASR has published over 30 papers in the fields of animal behavior and human-animal interactions (ISI and BDI journals) and three manuscripts are currently under review (ISI journals). Also, ASR has appeared multiple times on television and radio programs related to the effects of human-animal interactions on the quality of life. She is often recommended as a specialist in human-animal interaction related issues (i.e., behavioral, emotional and ethical problems).

Members of the CO research team:

  1. Costea-Bărluțiu Carmen (PhD) – Postdoctoral Researcher
  2. Roșan Adrian Marian (PhD) – Senior Researcher
  3. Mureșan Vlad Constantin (PhD)  – Young Researcher
  4. Pop Denisa – PhD Student
  5. Emanuel Ionel Andelin – PhD Student
  6. Băsceanu Ana-Maria (MSc) – Expert Psychologist
  7. Barbur Dana – Technical Assistant
  8. Collaborators (animal assisted services): Mugur Pop – equine assisted activities (Descoperă Natura Association, Cluj-Napoca, Romania) and Iulia Lazăr – canine assisted activities (Dog Place SRL and Pet Joy dog training school, Cluj-Napoca, Romania)

P1 (Autism Transilvania Association)

Coordinator: Nicoleta Niste is currently Executive Director of Autism Transilvania Association (ATA). Her responsabilities are to assure the realization of the ATA objectives by closed collaboration with the president of the association and by coordinating the secretarial activity and the proper function of the following Departments: Project Management and Fund Raising, Parents Counseling, Research and Development, Education. She is also coordinating the representativity of ATA in the social, academic and economic environment, in relation to the Strategic Program of ATA (2010-2015). Nicoleta Niste is also actively volunteering in several therapeutic programs and activities involving the autistic children. Nicoleta Niste (together with the President of the ATA) is successfully managing a team of 13 psychologists, four psychotherapists, one recovery therapist, one speech therapist, two physiotherapists, one therapy activity coordinator, one school integration coordinator, an executive manager and approx. 40 volunteers.

Members of P1 research team:

  1. Prună Milena – Expert in ASD programs
  2. Roman Anamaria (MSc) – Expert Psychologist
  3. Talaș Dorina Anca (PhD) – Expert in Special Education

 

P2 (SC D&D Research):

Coordinator: Dragos Iliescu, PhD is currently President-Elect of International Test Commission, managing director of 42 Romania (the approved SHL Distributor) and Associate Professor at SNSPA University, Bucharest, Romania. DI has obtained the PhD Degree in Organizational Psychology in 2003, at Babes-Bolyai University of Cluj-Napoca, Romania. His professional abilities (related to the field of the current project) are: (1) Psychological assessment, for over 150 clients: assessment centers, multirater feedback (360 assessment), individual or group assessment of competencies, abilities or personality traits; (2) Psychological studies in the line of I/O Psychology, for over 200 clients, mainly on: personnel and HR management techniques, organizational diagnosis, organizational development, problem-centered longitudinal studies in organizational behavior; organizational interventions and organizational developement; recruiting and personnel selection, job evaluation, job analysis and general evaluation of organizational structures and procedures; (3) Methodology-centered studies: instrument validation, validity and reliability testing, indigenisation and adaptation in Romania of a number of internationally renowned psychological measures, like CPI (California Psychological Inventory), NPQ (Nonverbal Personality Questionnaire), FFNPQ (Five-Factor Nonverbal Personality Questionnaire), STAI (Stait-Trait Anxiety Inventory), STAXI-2 (Stait-Trait Anger Expression Inventory), SAS (Social Axioms Survey), etc.

Members of P2 research team:

  1. Dan Petre (PhD) – Senior Researcher
  2. Ionescu Camelia Gabriela (MSc) – Technical Assistant
  3. Livinți Raluca (MSc) – Technical Assistant

Objective of the project:

The major objective of the project is to create a consortium formed by UBB (CO), ATA (P1) and D&D Research (P2), in order to develop a platform for psycho-pedagogical screening and interdisciplinary interventions (animal assisted occupational therapy) for the social-emotional enrichment of autistic children and their families.

Scientific and technical report

The platform consists in the following results of the project:

  • Center for Psycho-pedagogical Screening and Interdisciplinary Interventions – CPSI (located at the daily center of Autism Transilvania Association – Cluj-Napoca, developed in collaboration with UBB and D&D Research) aiming to support the improvement of children with autism and their social and educational integration through specialized services of diagnosis and early intervention. The selection and the acquisition of the best psychometric instruments for the Center will be facilitated by the team members of D&D Research (P2), in collaboration with experts in special education (screening and interventions) from BBU.
  • Battery of psychometric instruments already validated for Romanian population (available to the members of Special Education Department and to the personnel of ATA) – Selection and acquisition of appropriate psycho-pedagogical screening tools: several instruments will be acquired based on the current international standards in the ASD assessment: ADOS (Autism Diagnostic Observation Schedule), PEP-3 (Psycho-educational Profile Test - 3) and FACET (the research module of the biometric platform for the automatic identification of facial expressions – powered by iMotions, Denmark).
  • Protocols for Occupational Therapy Programs enhanced by animal assisted activities (dogs and horses) – individual-centered occupational therapy programs (by using therapy dogs at the daily center of ATA) and family-centered occupational therapy programs (by using horses in therapeutic settings involving ASD children and their families). Previous studies in the literature and performed by the UBB (CO) team on the ASD children from the ATA daily center has proven that the presence of animals within the therapeutic environment increases the efficiency of the standard therapeutic programs (e.g. Social Story; Grigore & Rusu, 2013). Based on the psychometric evaluations of the ASD children (with the instruments that will be available at the Center for Psycho-pedagogical Screening and Interdisciplinary Interventions), two types of therapy programs enhanced by animal assisted activities, such as: (1) one type (individually-centered) that can be easily integrated into the occupational therapy programs commonly used the daily centered of ATA (dog-assisted activities – dog-handler teams belong to Pet Joys Dog Training School, Cluj-Napoca, Romania), and (2) another type (family-centered) that will address not only the ASD children, but also their families – horse assisted activities based program (horses and professional assistance will be provided by the personnel of the Descoperă Natura Association, Cluj-Napoca, Romania). The novelty of these types of programs is that they are delivered within the Sensory Integration paradigm (Ayers, 1972), aiming to use animals to motivate the children to improve their sensorial, social and learning abilities by interacting with naturally occurring stimuli, such as animals. Specific variables will be measured for children and their family members involved in the programs (e.g., communication abilities, quality and initiation of social interactions, sensory integration, subjective happiness, satisfaction with life, empathy toward people and animals, attitudes toward animals, etc.).
  • Educational component for parents and the staff involved in the therapeutic programs for ASD children – the parents of the ASD children will also benefit from training in elements of animal-assisted activities for their children, based on their specific needs, which can be assessed by the personnel of the Centre of Psycho-pedagogical Screening and Interdisciplinary Interventions.
  • Research component (instruments) on attitudes toward animals and aspects of human-animal interactions which can be further used by the members of consortium, as it follows:

a.    Adaptation for Romanian language usage of Attitudes toward Animals Questionnaire (Turner, 2010), through direct collaboration with the main author of the instrument, Professor Dennis C. Tuner, PhD (University of Zurich, Switzerland and Institute for applied Ethology and Animal Psychology, Horgen, Switzerland), a renowned international expert in the field of human-animal interactions. Romanian language adaptation of this questionnaire was done in collaboration with members of Faculty of Veterinary Medicine, University of Agricultural Sciences and Veterinary Medicine, Cluj-Napoca, Romania. The questionnaire has been successfuly used in a transcultural investigation of instrumental and affective components of attitudes towards animals (company and stray dogs and cats) in Romania and Mexico, two regions that are facing similar issues in regards to pet management and urban crowding of stray animals. Compared to other tools assessing the attitudes towards animals, ATA (Turner, 2010) allows the assessment of the level of agreement toward the therapeutic value of animals, as well as of the perception of several pet mangament techniques. The questionnaire is now available in Romanian language and can be freely accessed by researchers, with the condition to specify the original authors and not to perform any changes to the structures of the questionnaire.

b.    Romanian language adaptation of the Pet Attachment Questionnaire (Zilcha-Mano, Mikulincer, & Shaver, 2011). The English version of the tool was obtained from the authors for research usage. Standard methods were used for the Romanian language adaptation of the questionnaire, which indicates good psychometric properties (e.g. Avoidance scale in relation to the pet– Alpha cronbach = 0.71; Anxiety scale in relation to the pet – Alpha cronbach = 0.81). Part of the results of the Romanian language validation of the questionnaire have been presented at the International Attachment Conference 2017, London (A multidimensional investigation of interpersonal and human-animal attachment: Association wit empathy and anthropomorphism in Romanian cultural context; Bărluțiu-Costea, C. & Rusu, A.S.) and one manuscript is in preparation to be submitted for publication. Besides the Pet Attachment Questionnaire, several other questionnaires have been administrated to the Romanian respondents, allowing for a complex analysis of the associations between several components of interpersonal and human-animal attachment, such as: Animal Empathy Scale (Paul, 2000), Anthropomorphism Scale Interview (Albert & Bulcroft, 1988) și Experiences in Close Relationships, revised (Fraley, Waller & Brennan, 2000, translated by Skolka, 2009). The Romanian version of Pet Attachment Questionnaire (Zilcha-Mano, Mikulincer & Shaver, 2011) opens directions toward the optimization of animal-assisted educational and therapy programs by allowing the assessment of attachment dimensions in relation to responsible and functional ownership (human and animal quality of life).

c.    Development of a valuable national and international network in the field of human-animal interactions, with a strong interdisciplinary approach (e.g. veterinary medicine, special education, ethology, behavioral therapeutic interventions, etc.). Two recent collaborations refer to Dennis C. Turner, PhD, director of the Institute for applied Ethology and Animal Psychology (Horgen, Switzerland, http://www.turner-iet.ch/en/) and Ingrid Stephan, director of the Institute of Social Learning with Animals (http://lernen-mit-tieren.de/, Lindwedel, Germany). At national level, the project has deepen the collaboration  in the field of One Health oriented approach of Human-Animal Interactions with the members of Faculty of Veterinary Medicine, University of Agricultural Sciences and Veterinary Medicine, Cluj-Napoca, Romania (www.usamvcluj.ro).

 

Results of the project – dissemination:

Publications (papers, chapters, books):

  1. Rusu, A.S., Pop, D., Turner, D.C. (in press). Geographically apart, attitudinally very close: A comparison of attitudes toward animals between Romania and Mexico City. People and Animals: The International Journal for Research and Practice.
  2. Rusu, A.S., Ober, C.A., Mihalca, D.A., Turner, D.C. (in press). Romanian version of the Attitudes toward Animals Questionnaire (Turner, 2010): Affective and instrumental dimensions of human-animal interactions. Volume 31, Studies and Research in the Socio-Humanistic Domain, Romanian Academy, Cluj-Napoca, Romania.
  3. Rusu, A.S. (in press). Hundegestützte Tätigkeiten für Kinder mit Autismus: freies Spiel oder strukturierte Tätigkeiten? In “tiergeützten” Zeitschrift (Institut für Soziales Lernen mit Tieren, Deutschland).
  4. Rusu, A.S. (2017). Chapter: Constructing healthy experiences through human-animal interactions for autistic children and their families: Implications for research and education. In “Autism – Paradigms and Clinical Applications”. Ed. Janne Yip, InTech Publisher, ISBN 978-953-51-5013-8.
  5. Book (in Romanian language – in press): “Terapia și activitățile asistate de animale: De la cunoștințe interdisciplinare la practică”. Coordonator volum: Alina S. Rusu. Editura Presa Universitară Clujeană.
  6. Chitic, V., Rusu, A.S. (2016). An Interdisciplinary Methodological Approach (ethology and sociometry) of Assessing the Effects of Animal Assisted Therapy on Children with Special Needs. The European Proceedings of Social & Behavioral Sciences, eISSN 2357-1330, 18:101-108.
  7. Pop, D., Rusu, A.S., Miresan, V. (2016). The Development of a Canine Para-Agility Program: Positive Affects in Children with Autism and in Therapy Dogs. Bulletin of University of Agricultural Sciences and Veterinary Medicine CN: Animal Sciences and Biotechnologies. 73:1-6.
  8. Pop, D.A., Rusu, A.S., Vancia-Pop, V., Papuc, I., Constantinescu, R., Miresan, V. (2014). Physiological effects of human-animal positive interactions in dogs – Review of the literature.  Bulletin of Agricultural Sciences and Veterinary Medicine Cluj-Napoca - Animal Science and Biotechnologies, 71:102-111.


Dissemination events (conferences, workshops, community-oriented activities) Participări la conferințe, workshopuri, evenimente:

  1. International Attachment Conference 2017, 29th of June -1st of July, 2017,  London, UK. Poster presentation: A multidimensional investigation of interpersonal and human-animal attachment: Associations with empathy and anthropomorphism in Romanian cultural context. Costea-Bărluțiu, C, & Rusu, A.S.
  2. Academic Days of Cluj, 23rd of June, 2017, Cluj-Napoca, Romania. Oral presentation (Alina S. Rusu). Romanian version of Attitudes toward Animals Questionnaire (Turner, 2000):  A transcultural approach of human-animal interaction.
  3. Workshop Animal Assisted Therapy and Activities: Elements of Research and Education, 18th of June, 2017, Galati, Romania. Organisers: Danubius University and Therapy Animals Association, Galati. Invited speaker: Alina S. Rusu.
  4. International Summer School: Multidisciplinary and Interdisciplinary Aspects of Host-Parasites Interactions, 12th-15th of July, 2017, Cluj-Napoca, Romania. Oral presentation: Human sexual behavioral correlates and expressions in the context of host-parasite interactions: The case of Toxoplasma gondii (Alina S. Rusu).
  5. HEART Conference 2017 (Healthcare, Education and Research Talks), 8-9th of April, University of Medicine and Pharmacy “Iuliu Hatieganu”, Cluj-Napoca, Romania.  Invited speaker: Alina S. Rusu. Lecture: “Human-Animal Interaction: From Evolutionary Significance to Interdisciplinarity”.
  6. Vivid Mind Conference 2017, 11th-12th of March, University of Bucharest, Romania. Invited speaker: Alina S. Rusu. “Interdisciplinary sparkles: Research guidelines in Evolutionary Psychology”.
  7. International Symposium Research and Education in an Innovation Era, ISREIE 6th Edition, Arad, Romania, 8-10th of December, 2016. Keynote speaker: Alina Simona Rusu. Positive Human-Animal Interactions: Developing Social Responsibility and Attitudes towards Diversity in College Students.
  8. InterFest 3rd Edition – Festival of Romanian Penitentiaries, 13th of September 2016, Bucharest, Romania. Oral presentation: Positive Human-Animal Interactions: From research to practical applicability on enhancement of human quality of life. Invited speaker: Rusu, A.S.
  9. The 4th International Conference Education, Reflection, Development. 8-9th of July, 2016, Cluj-Napoca, Romania. Oral presentation: A Transcultural Investigation of Attitudes Towards Animals between Romania and Mexico: Implication for Education and Stray Animals’ Management Programs (Rusu, A.S., Ober, C.A., Mihalca, A.D., Pop, D.A., Turner, D.C.).
  10. 14th Triennial IAHAIO International Conference, Paris, France, 11-23rd of July, 2016. Poster presentation: Are stray animals a cross-cultural problem? A comparison of attitudes towards companion animals between Romania and Mexico. Rusu, A.S., Ober, C.A., Mihalca, A.D., Pop, D., Turner, D.C.
  11. Animal-Assisted Activities and Therapy for Autistic Children Workshop, 13-14th of November, 2015. Oral presentation: “Benefits of human-animal interactions on the socio-emotional development of autistic children”, Copiii de Cristal Association, Brasov, Romania. Invited speaker: Rusu, A.S.
  12. Launch of the Centre for Animal Assisted Therapy and Research of Human-Animal Interactions – Four Paws Foundation, Bucharest, Romania. 2-4th of November, 2015. Invited speaker (Oral presentation): Design of healthy human-animal interactions: Education and Therapy. Invited speaker: Rusu, A.S.
  13. 64th IVSA International Congress: Human-Animal Interaction. Amazing Transylvania, 27th of July - 8th of August, 2015, Cluj-Napoca, Romania.  Invited speaker: Alina S. Rusu. Human animal interaction: Ideas for healthy life experience and behavioural engineering.
  14. 64th IVSA International Congress: Human-Animal Interaction. Amazing Transylvania, 27th of July -8th of August, 2015, Cluj-Napoca, Romania. Workshop (Rusu, A.S.): Guidelines of designing a program of animal-assisted interventions.

 

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