Skip to main content

Court ruling sparks debate over service dogs and autistic students

Photo Courtesy of Foot Slogger @
Guide dogs for Autistic children are specifically trained for them.

How does one decide if an animal is a service animal who is performing a needed duty for a child or a pet that makes them happy?

According to the Illinois Attorney General:

"The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) defines a service animal as any guide, signal dog, or other animal individually trained to provide assistance to a person with a disability. An animal fitting this description is considered a service animal under the ADA regardless of whether the animal is licensed or certified by state or local government."

This is the information used by a judge to order a school to temporarily allow an Autistic child, six-year-old Kaleb, to bring his service dog to the school while awaiting a trial in November.

The Illinois school district of Villa Grove originally said no to the family based on the safety of other students (those with allergies or fear of dogs) and saying that the dog is not necessary for educational purposes, but to comfort the child during the day, which is not an educational need. The school is also concerned that the dog will become a disruption in a class of first graders.

The parents disagree. They say that the dog has been a calming influence on their son, provides a constant from home to school that makes their son feel safe, and is actually tethered to the boy to keep him from running away or walking out into the street.

While it is easy to understand the school's side of this argument, there are many ways to accommodate the other children in the school that do not include banning the dog. For instance, the school likely has more than one classroom for each grade. Making sure that none of the children with allergies are placed in the same room with the dog would be key. Also, making sure the dog is well-trained would be important. Nobody is advocating that a child's pet be brought to class to make them feel comfortable. This is a trained dog that would not only help the Autistic student, but would in fact be helping the other students learn also since the Autistic student wouldn't be as likely to melt down or act out.

This case goes to court in November. Until then, the courts have ruled that the dog can accompany the child to school. A similar case in Mt Vernon Illinois is also under appeal.

What do you think? Tell us in the comments.

Check back for updates to this and related stories or subscribe to have the latest special education headlines from this author straight to your email box. Your email address will not be shared.

Note: Permission is granted to include short extracts of this article on websites and email lists with a link to this page (the original). This article has a copyright © and should not be reprinted in its entirety without the author's permission (

More articles by Kindall Nelson:

Special needs students not subject to disciplinary actions, kudos to CT principal

Urgent: Making due process affordable for parents of students with special needs

11-year-old girl with ASD charged with felony in Texas (Part 1) 


  • Jessi 5 years ago

    In regards to the school's claim that the dog would be a distraction to the first grade students - I think a child with meltdowns, tantrums, and/or repetitive body movements (which are all common in children with autism) would be more of a distraction. Service dogs are trained to not seek out attention from other people while working but to be of service to the disabled person at all times. The teacher of the classroom, during the first week, must inform the other children how they are to behave around all service dogs, not just the one in their classroom. This not only helps the children while they are in the classroom with the dog, but also helps them know how to behave around ANY service dog they may see.

  • Carlson 5 years ago

    I think the citizens of Villa Grove should question why their tax dollars are being spent on lawyer fees for things like taking away a disabled kid's service dog. How about putting the money toward teaching Kaleb instead?

  • Carolyn 5 years ago

    Hoping this comes out with a favorable result for child and dog. Service dogs are still fairly new in general society - I can see where there could be concern on the part of uneducated members of the school or school board - hopefully actually seeing dog and child in action will not only allay their fears but help to promote this healing idea. I keep feeling that what would help would be to get more and more articles and interviews out there talking about the benefits to all concerned. It's like so many things that in the beginning spark people's fears. I trust that in a few years this will be a common thing - and gee, the other kids won't even pay attention to the dog after a few days -except that maybe his influence will calm them as well.
    Hoping for the best
    Carolyn Nay, 4PAWCREATIONS.COM

  • Patti 5 years ago

    This dog should definitely allowed in the classroom. Here are some links that discuss service dogs and autism. In my opinion they are protected under the ADA and the family will win in court. The school and their attorneys should get their hands slapped for failing to understand federal law. Search ADA and autism and you will find a website which applies the law to this situation.

  • Jamie 5 years ago

    I have Cerebral Palsy & am trying to get a Service Dog. I like what Carlson said! Nobody wants to learn about Service Dogs today they just want to gripe at somebody for bringing a "DOG" in a public place. What people don't realize is that our Service Dogs help us in our daily lives, not just daily living so we get up,feed & walk them. Our "service dogs" help with our emotional well being also: Depression,anger,panic attacks,fear. The dog knows what is going to happen before I know it, like he knows I'm going to have a pannic attack before I do so he paws my leg or does something to tell me to go sit/lay down so I don't fall down. And I go sit down because if I don't he won't leave me alone until I do!, I go sit down and the dogs fine then. So a Service Dog no matter what kind/for whoever the dog is for is a great "DOG"!
    I'm trying to raise money to get a Service Dog of my own if anyone can help here is my website:

    Thanks Jamie

  • Lin 5 years ago

    I can't help but wonder if this would be a problem if the child were blind rather than autistic. I am thinking most likely not.

  • SD User 5 years ago

    If the child was blind, he wouldn't have a SD at this point. Guide programs do not make placements with young children. They require the visually impaired be able to navigate on their own and be able to care for the animal; something that this child cannot do.

  • Jessica 5 years ago

    I believe that bringing a dog to a classroom is a very, very bad idea. While the child may need it, there are countless reasons why it would be a poor and unfair decision to the rest of the class.

    If the child needs the dog to keep stability, then the child should be put in private/home learning school.

    There was a student in my classroom who did have a dog to help calm her, but it was just, ultimately, a social separation for this girl and a great distraction of the class.