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Michelle Whitham Jones

I am final-year PhD Anthrozoology student. Prior to returning to academia I worked with children and adults with learning difficulties for 25 years within education and care settings. 

My PhD research measures engagement between autistic children and donkeys using mixed-methods that embrace diversity between and within species 

Current evidence often comes from test-re-test psychometric scores that demonstrate improvement in the areas that the child has been deemed deficient. This approach fails to capture the child’s abilities and focuses on their disabilities. 

My thesis argues that child-equid interactions are dynamic. One participant will have an effect on the engagement of the other and this variable requires much more attention prior to reporting benefits of equine assisted activities (EAA’s). 

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 interaction between human and equid participants in real-time. I observed how diversity and personal preference, irrespective of species, effected levels of engagement. The tool detected differences in engagement seeking or avoiding that varied, with different partners. The QET was designed to minimise the possibility that one member of the dyad would gain a larger share of observer’s attention, rendering the other partners’ subtle behaviours unintentionally missed by casual observation. This observational bias, possibly quite common in other EAA sessions, meant that welfare 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 inform decisions about the suitability, well-being and consent of either participant from subtle nuances detected during real-time QET observations. 

The QET was designed to be used in combination with contextual qualitative data to assess outcomes of EAA that captures both comparable data and observations unique to the individuals.