Dogs have been helpmates to people for thousands of years. They have aided us with hunting, farming, herding, traveling, and defense. More recently, dogs have been trained to assist the blind, deaf, immobile, and those with seizure disorders. Now, dogs are expanding into the work of helping people who struggle with emotional problems, post-traumatic stress disorder, and autism.
What is Autism?
Autism and autism spectrum disorder (ASD) are brain development conditions in humans that impair the ability to communicate and interact socially with other people. They also cause varying degrees of repetitive behaviors.
The biggest signs of autism tend to appear around two to three years of age. Currently, around 1 in 68 children is diagnosed as being affected by some degree of ASD or autism. These conditions affect over three million people in the US.
Autism Service Dogs
Several organizations currently train dogs to be used as service animals for people with autism. The results can be life-changing for some families. What specific things can an autism service dog help with?
Wandering away: Many children who are autistic will either wander away from their caregivers when they are engrossed in thought, or they will run off when they become overwhelmed or overstimulated in a situation. Autism service dogs can help with this issue in two ways.
- The service dog can wear a special harness that is attached to the child, then the caregiver can hold the dog's leash. In this way, even if the adult's attention is diverted when needing to write a check or look at an item, the child will not be able to wander off. Many service dogs are even taught to sit or lie down if the child gets more than a few feet away from their caregiver while the harness is on.
- Autism service dogs are also often taught to track their child. This way, if the child is able to escape, the dog can lead the caregivers immediately in the right direction, saving time and finding the child much more quickly. This may be the difference between life and death in certain circumstances.
- Sleeping: Many autistic children have trouble sleeping in their own beds alone. A service dog sleeping with them can allow them to relax, sleep, and can be a reassuring presence to soothe them back to sleep if they wake up. Having the dog there also allows parents to sleep more soundly, knowing that the dog will alert them if their child gets out of bed and attempts to wander off.
- Repetitive movements: People with autism or ASD often display repetitive behaviors, such as rocking back and forth or moving their hands in front of their faces. Usually this behavior can be calmed by touching the child and applying gentle pressure. When caregivers have to provide the touch, it can become laborious or cause annoyance. An autism service dog can be trained to provide this counter-touch when the child displays the repetitive movement. The dog does not become irritated and does not mind continuing to deliver the touch for as long as it takes.
- Discomfort with touch: Children with autism or ASD often have difficulty giving and accepting physical forms of affection. Hugging, kissing, and touching can be uncomfortable for them. However, they often find it easy to hug their service dog and to accept nuzzles and kisses in return. This often translates to an increased incidence of the child then instigating these behaviors with their caregivers.
- Consistency, stability, and calm: Autistic children and those with ASD are often easily overwhelmed in social situations. This can result in negative behaviors and stress for the child. A service dog provides an anchor of consistent, stable energy that the child can focus on in order to calm down. Autistic children with service dogs often have fewer emotional and physical outbursts.
- Friendship: One of the hallmarks of autism and ASD is difficulty forming emotional bonds with people. Because autistic children behave differently, other people may treat them poorly. Service dogs do not treat autistic children any differently than any other child. An autistic child's service dog can fulfill their human need for friendship and connection.
Autism service dogs are adding to the long tradition of dogs helping and serving humans. As our needs have evolved, their responses have evolved as well. It is an amazing tribute to the devotion that our canine friends have for us. Find out more at http://4pawsforability.org/autism-assistance-dog/ and https://www.autismspeaks.org/services/service-dogs.
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