Dogs Improve Quality of Life for Families with Children with Autism, MU Study Finds

New social media mapping methods allow MU researchers to analyze posts by families affected by autism

Feb. 25, 2013

Story Contact(s): Nathan Hurst, 573.882.6217

Families who have children with autism spectrum disorders (ASD) are often faced with significant challenges, such as caregiver burden, sleep deprivation, and psychological distress. Because of these difficulties, ownership of pet and service dogs by families with ASD children has received growing attention as a way to provide benefits for these children and their families. However, there has been little research on how dog ownership affects families with ASD children. Now, through a novel method of monitoring social media, interdisciplinary researchers from the University of Missouri have found that families with ASD children regard dog ownership as having a positive impact on their households. Rebecca Johnson, director the MU Research Center for Human-Animal Interaction (ReCHAI) and professor in the MU Sinclair School of Nursing and College of Veterinary Medicine, says these findings further indicate the positive effects animal interactions can have on children with autism.

“We are beginning to learn how companion animals may provide comfort and unconditional love to families of children with autism, and to the children themselves,” Johnson said. “This may be particularly important given the very high stress levels of these families.  Pet dogs can have a calming effect in stressful situation as has been shown widely in research.”

For their paper, which was presented at the 2012 International Communication Association conference, the MU researchers analyzed word clusters such as “family” “pet” and “love” from thousands of Internet forum and social media posts by members of families with ASD children. Based on the researchers’ analysis of these word groups, they concluded that dogs trained to be service or therapy animals can help children with autism in their social and school lives as well as improve the overall quality of life for all family members. Gretchen Carlisle, a former doctoral student in the MU Sinclair School of Nursing, says while dogs can have a positive impact on families, it is important to adequately match dogs with families based on their specific needs.

“Pet dogs are common in families with typically developing children and also among families of children with autism,” Carlisle said. “Most parents reported that their children were attached to their dogs and children said they had closer bonds with small dogs. Considering the special needs of children with autism, selecting the right dog for the right family may be very important for successful family/pet relationships.”

Glen Cameron, the Maxine Wilson Gregory Chair in Journalism Research and professor of strategic communication at the MU School of Journalism, says this newly developed method of mapping social media can be very useful for analyzing Internet content for a wide variety of purposes.

“This study showcases methods and measures for taming the vast content of social media such as blogs, tweets, and Facebook postings that can shed light on internal policies and external communication programs of organizations,” Cameron said. “While this research offers important implications, particularly for health professionals and campaign planners in the autism community about dog ownership in families with children with ASD, our findings and insights regarding social media monitoring and analysis can also be applied to health organizations and companies in the healthcare and public health sector.”

This research is a result of collaboration through the One Health, One Medicine and Media for the Future areas of Mizzou Advantage. Mizzou Advantage is a program that focuses on four areas of strength at MU. The goals of Mizzou Advantage are to strengthen existing faculty networks, create new networks and propel Mizzou’s research, instruction and other activities to the next level.

School launches new DNP program area

Feb. 12, 2013

Columbia, Mo. — The University of Missouri Sinclair School of Nursing (MU SSON) is launching a new online doctoral program area with a $250,000 investment from the university. The new nursing leadership and innovations in health care area of study within the current doctor of nursing practice (DNP) program will allow students to prepare for nurse executive roles.

“The complexity of today’s health care systems demand that top nurse executives receive doctoral preparation,” said Judith Fitzgerald Miller, MU SSON dean. “Nurse executives must be able to manage complex information systems, reimbursement for care and safety challenges and translate best practices into daily care delivery.”

The nursing program area is one of 16 new online programs in which the university has invested in order to respond to the increased demand for online learning opportunities and enhance the number of graduates in specific industries.

“This program will prepare nurse executives by reaching them wherever they work and reside through online program delivery,” Miller said. “The new curriculum provides leadership development coupled with health care innovation and entrepreneurship.”

The school’s RN to BSN and all graduate programs are offered in an online format. The new leadership and entrepreneurship area will be the sixth DNP area of study offered by the school. Other areas of study include adult-gerontology and pediatrics clinical nurse specialist and family, pediatrics and family psychiatric and mental health nurse practitioner.

The university funds will defray startup costs of developing the curriculum, including purchasing any software necessary to offer the courses. Other university programs included in the new initiative include hospitality management, public administration, education, energy efficiency, geospatial intelligence, public health, interactive media, health communication, architectural studies and biomedical sciences. All the programs will be developed and taught by MU faculty.

“We are pleased to begin offering online programs in these in-demand subject areas,” MU Provost Brian Foster said. “Producing graduates with the skill sets and preparation needed to advance these industries is at the core of our mission at the University of Missouri.”

Demand for online education is at an all-time high.

“Mizzou has been offering distance education for more than 100 years as part of fulfilling our land-grant University mission,” said Jim Spain, vice provost for undergraduate studies and interim vice provost for e-learning. “Our offerings have more than doubled and our enrollments have grown 78 percent in the last five years. However, Missourians and distance students everywhere continue to ask for quality, affordable online higher education. These new online programs will not only help students be more globally competitive, but also help meet our state leaders’ goal of having a more highly educated Missouri.”

* The MU News Bureau contributed to this report.

Low-income Pregnant Women in Rural Areas Experience High Levels of Stress; Mothers’ and Babies’ Health at Risk, MU Researcher Says

Jan. 29, 2013

Story Contact(s): Jesslyn Chew

COLUMBIA, Mo. – Stress during pregnancy puts mothers’ and their babies’ health at risk, previous research has shown. Now, a University of Missouri study indicates low-income pregnant women in rural areas experience high levels of stress yet lack appropriate means to manage their emotional and physical well-being. Health providers should serve as facilitators and link rural women with resources, the researcher suggests.

“Many people think of rural life as being idyllic and peaceful, but, in truth, there are a lot of health disparities for residents of rural communities,” said Tina Bloom, assistant professor of nursing and Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Nurse Faculty Scholar at MU’s Sinclair School of Nursing. “Chronic, long-term stress is hard on pregnant women’s health and on their babies’ health. Stress is associated with increased risks for adverse health outcomes, such as low birth weights or pre-term deliveries, and those outcomes can kill babies.”

During interviews with nearly 25 pregnant women from rural communities in Missouri, Bloom and her colleagues learned financial problems plagued the women. Financial stress was exacerbated by the women’s lack of employment, reliable transportation and affordable housing. In addition, the women said small-town gossip, the isolation of their rural communities and the interdependence of their lives with their extended family members also increased their stress levels.

“To the women I talked with, getting jobs was their ultimate solution,” Bloom said. “Self-reliance is a value in rural populations, and I think that’s what these women were expressing—that their circumstances were difficult and stressful, but if they had the ability to support themselves financially, they would be able to lift their families out of poverty.”

Mental illness also affected many of the women, with nearly two out of three showing symptoms of major depression and one in four experiencing moderate to severe Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Many of the women had significant violent experiences in their lifetimes, and one in five was in an abusive relationship at the time of the interviews.

“Prenatal visits are key opportunities for health providers to talk with expectant mothers about their stressors, especially since many rural areas have fewer or unsatisfactory resources such as mental health care and domestic violence shelters,” Bloom said. “Clinicians making referrals to resources should consider doing warm hand-offs, which involves sitting with the patients and making calls together or introducing them in person to people who can help them. Health providers also should keep in mind that rural woman have increased concerns about confidentiality and gossip and don’t want to feel judged.”

Bloom said rural clinicians need to ask pregnant women about their stress levels and their exposures to violence. In addition, medical providers need to let women know about available resources.

“The rural Missouri women I met have incredible strength and resilience,” Bloom said. “Many of these women were living in very difficult circumstances with minimal resources. Health providers should remember that these women have amazing strengths and acknowledge those strengths when they work with them.”

Bloom cautions that these findings are from a small sample of women who primarily were low-income, unemployed young Caucasian women in partnered relationships and are not necessarily representative of the larger population.

The study, “Rural Pregnant Women’s Stressors and Priorities for Stress Reduction,” was published in Issues in Mental Health Nursing.