While autism remains an important issue in families, the resources available to these families continue to increase. Many have heard of service dogs for the blind, handicapped, and even for those suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Not many people think of a service dog specifically trained to help those with autism. This method of therapy is becoming more and more popular.
Autism is a brain disorder which results in social impairments and problems with communication and relationships. This can affect the development and learning process of children. All aspects of the child's life and of the family unit can be affected. Service dogs can help promote the healthy functioning of the autistic individual, and therefore improve the overall functioning of the family.
Here are a few ways autism service dogs can be a positive influence:
- Not only are dogs a source of unconditional love, they also promote responsibility in children. Autistic children may gain confidence as a result of working with a service dog. Animals rely on their humans for survival and this can promote responsibility.
- They also provide a sense of comfort which can result in a positive difference in behavior. They have a "calming power". A situation that may otherwise be overwhelming and stressful to the child, may now seem more manageable as they respond to cues from their service dog. For example, a loud room may be a trigger for a breakdown, but with a service dog, the child can see that the dog remains calm and may reflect that energy. Another result could be a focus on the dog which allows much of the previously distracting noise to be ignored.
- Service dogs can help those with autism to develop more independence. They are trained to help keep their handler focused. This can make daily activities less stressful and easier to complete.
- They provide safety. They can alert their handlers to important and urgent sounds and cues in the environment, such as a fire alarm. While the child may know what the sound means, it may startle them, cause stress, and result in poor response time. A service dog can direct attention and steer the child to a safer place. They are also trained to interrupt harmful behaviors and breakdowns. Over time, this could result in fewer instances of those behaviors.
- Dogs are often an "ice breaker". The presence of a dog may initiate conversation and physical proximity which the child may not have been used to. The child may be more likely to speak when the conversation is focused on the dog. This also gives children an opportunity to witness normal social behavior.
- Receiving affection from the animal may encourage the child to show affection toward the animal, which could promote positive physical social behavior with other people.
With so many positive outcomes of therapy dogs on the child, imagine the impact on the family. Less worry and stress, a positive improvement in your child, and more opportunities for growth are only a few. Not having to make sure someone can be home with your child because they are too overwhelmed at the mall, needing to plan your trip to the grocery store around the schedules of everyone else, watching your child miss out on great and fun opportunities because they can't handle it. A service dog could give that child the chance to join in those activities and be a more healthy, functioning member of your family and of society.
Tender Loving Canines Assistance Dogs, Inc. is a non-profit organization which trains many kinds of service dogs in San Diego County. Their autism service dogs are custom trained based on the specific needs of each child. Not all children with autism show the same behaviors or level of social delay, so a dog that is trained for their specific lifestyle and behavior is optimal. Tender Loving Canines recently teamed up with TERI, Inc. (the Training, Education, and Research Institute) for autism to help those affected lead fuller lives. To find out more about this great organization or get information on requesting a service dog, visit their website: www.tenderlovingcanines.org.