Assistance Dogs For Kids With Autism

Most of us have heard of the important work done by the non-profit organization Guiding Eyes for the Blind, but did you know they also have a program called Heeling Autism? It is designed to train and match assistance dogs with children who have autism.

What is autism?

Autism is a poorly-understood spectrum of disorders characterized by language delays, problems with communication, and unusual behavior. Autistic children usually have a high level of stress, possibly due to their inability to communicate their feelings and their difficulty in relating socially. Autistic children may engage in repetitive self-stimulating behaviors such as banging their heads against the floor or picking at their skin.

Boy and Golden Retriever Dog

According to the Mayo Clinic, people who suffer from autism have trouble making eye contact, they may not respond to their name, and they may have an aversion to cuddling or being held. They may repeat words or phrases over and over without understanding what they mean. They are often disturbed by changes in their routine and may have trouble processing sensory input. For example, they may resist wearing certain items of clothing because they don't like the way the clothing feels.

One of the most troublesome aspects of autism is that children with the disease have a tendency to have meltdowns when stressed, and will often bolt to escape situations where they feel overwhelmed. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about one of every 110 people in the United States suffers from the disorder, which is normally diagnosed in early childhood. Autism is more common in boys than in girls, and children who suffer from developmental delays or who have siblings with autism are at a higher risk of developing the disease.

Although there is no cure for autism, early intervention in the form of occupational therapy, speech therapy, and behavioral therapy can help ease the symptoms. Medications such as anti-psychotics and anti-depressants may also be helpful.

How can a dog help an autistic child?

Not surprisingly, having an assistance dog can help an autistic child feel calmer. Studies have shown that the child's level of the stress hormone cortisol is reduced when an assistance dog is brought into the home of a child with autism.

In numerous studies, the children's families also reported that the children were better able to handle social situations with the help of assistance dogs. These specially-trained dogs helped the children achieve a level of independence and confidence that would likely never have been possible without assistance animals.

One of the problems for autistic children is that they are often rejected by their peers. Having a dog with them in school and in other social situations can provide a topic of conversation and a bridge between the autistic child and his typically-developing peers. The dogs are also trained to nudge the children when the dogs notice repetitive behaviors. This small trigger may be just enough to get the children to re-engage socially or in class.

Most importantly, assistance dogs help the family of an autistic child keep the child safe. When the child begins to have a meltdown, the dog may help comfort the child to prevent him from hurting himself. In addition, because the dog is tethered to the child, it becomes impossible for the child to bolt, as the dog simply lies down if the child tries to run away.

What breeds of dog are used for autism assistance?

Obviously, the dog must be fairly large in order to keep the child from bolting simply by lying down. In addition, the animal must be calm and even-tempered enough to put up with any of the child's meltdowns that cannot be averted. Currently, the program uses Labrador and Golden Retrievers.

One Family's Story

In her short story, "Gifts from Shade" the parent of an autistic child named Danny relates how the dog contributed to play time with her son.

"Shade has joined Danny on wheelbarrow rides, down slides at the playground and even on a see-saw (Danny going up and Shade going down!). For a child who often will wander or play alone, Shade's constant companionship is a wondrous and most joyous gift."

She also speaks to the safety concerns Shade has helped her resolve.

"Since Danny's diagnosis, I was living with a constant fear that I would lose Danny and that he would wander away. I was on constant watch, everywhere I went I worried that he could be gone at any second. Now I know that I have an extra set of eyes on him and four extra legs. I can do the "typical shopper" things like read a label, search for a product or wait in a line. It is hard to explain what a gift this is, because most people take this for granted. I can watch my daughter's soccer game with full attention. I can have a conversation with a friend that I bump into out in public. For a parent with a child on the autism spectrum, being away from the security of home is a very stressful occurrence…not anymore for us."
Read the complete story.

Heeling Autism's program

Guiding Eyes for the Blind launched its Heeling Autism program in 2008. By late 2009, they had provided nearly 20 dogs to autistic children and their families. They cite four important effects a trained assistance dog can have on an autistic child and his or her family:

  • social acknowledgment of the child by his or her peers
  • companionship
  • reduced parental stress
  • increased independence, confidence, and social acceptance for the child
In order to be eligible for the program, a family must have a child between the ages of 2 and 10 with an autism diagnosis who needs the dog for safety reasons. The family must live within two hours driving time of the training school in Yorktown Heights to allow the trainer to easily reach the family for follow-up visits. The home must contain no residents who are opposed to or allergic to dogs. At least one parent must attend a week on campus for training, and the family must understand that a service dog is a lifetime commitment.

Applications for this program are available only by phoning 914-243-2228 or emailing [email protected]

How can you help?

The program is always in need of homes willing to foster and socialize young puppies in preparation for entering the program. Volunteers across twelve states help in raising puppies and preparing them to be assistance dogs. More information can be found on the Guiding Eyes for the Blind's website.

To make a financial contribution to Heeling Autism, email [email protected] or phone 914-243-4340.

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