How Dogs Help Children With Autism

Autism assistance dogs are unique to the world of dogs helping people. Unlike the guide dog who helps with physical tasks, the autism assistance dog is there more for emotional support. By simply being there, a solid, sound and reassuring companion can help ease sensory overload, which is a common challenge for those with autism. People with autism are often unable to filter out sensory input – these folks hear, feel and smell everything – all at once – and are usually unable to ignore or redirect those stimuli. With a dog by one’s side, an autism assistance dog can help by giving them a focal point, or a way to ground their random, unceasing environmental experiences.

Most children with autism have no concept of personal safety, and can wander outdoors and into traffic. Autism assistance dogs have a very special ability to help with this. A child can be tethered from his/her harness to the dog’s harness to prevent the child from bolting in public. This is a trained ability that starts with the dog and the child acclimating to wearing harnesses and vests and ultimately, the child holds a handle from the dog’s harness and an adult is always holding another leash to the dog.

The kindness and gentleness of the autism assistance dog helps the child by just being there – being tolerant of a child that never “grows up”, makes crazy noises and funny body language, may not speak and may want to do compulsive behaviors over and over. Dogs can be tasked-trained to use touch intervention, as well as pressure intervention and mobility assistance when these repetitive or self-injurious behaviors occur.

The American Disabilities Act states simply that a person with a disability that substantially limits one or more major life activities, and can benefit from a service dog trained to perform tasks to mitigate those disabilities, has the right to use a service dog – social /emotional assistance dog. It is clear that an autism assistance dog is much like dogs being trained for mental health disabilities. It is similar to the concept of how a psychiatric service dog is used – dogs can pull one out of a fugue state, or a state of disassociation.

Trained assistance dogs can be the link between a child with autism and the world around them. Instead of stares and mutters of a spoiled child or the inability to parent, a service dog can alert the public that this child is a little different. By showing that interactions with other people are a positive thing, a service dog can help with the gross delays many of these children have in public or crowds. With its unconditional love and inherent patience, an assistance dog can lend far more support than any particular person or parent can offer by themselves.

Here is a list of behaviors that a child with autism may show:

  • Non responsive to verbal cues; acts as if deaf, although hearing tests are in normal range
  • Uneven gross/fine motor skills
  • Noticeable physical over-activity or extreme under-activity
  • No real fear of danger
  • Apparent over-sensitivity or under sensitivity to pain
  • Obsessive attachment to objects
  • Spinning objects
  • Sustained odd play
  • Unresponsive to normal teaching methods
  • Little or no eye contact
  • Not wanting to cuddle or be cuddled
  • Difficulty in mixing with others
  • Tantrums
  • Preference to being alone; aloof manner
  • Laughing (and/or crying) for no apparent reason
  • Showing distress for reasons not apparent to others
  • Repeating words or phrases in place of normal, responsive language
  • Difficulty in expressing needs, using gestures or pointing instead of words
  • Insistence on sameness; resistance to change

Resources and Links

Websites:
Heal
JSA Kids
Autism Speaks
Center for Autism & Related Disabilities
North Star Dogs
Chris-Ti Goldens

Reading Material:
"Healing our autistic children" by Dr. Julie Buckley MD

 

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