Autism is a condition that affects sufferers in many ways. It can affect how someone learns, their social engagement and how they function within their environment. Some people are low on the autism spectrum and others are higher, having very complex needs.
Very often autistic people need support and intervention in their everyday lives, and service dogs play an important role in helping them live life to the full. What are some behaviors displayed by children with Autism?
- Ignore or refuse to act in a certain way
- Inappropriate speech or behavior
- Self harm
- Communication problems
- Rituals and routines
Service dogs are typically trained from puppyhood to carry out tasks and respond to commands. They will go to obedience classes and receive specialized guidance to prepare them for life as service dogs and learn how to deal with children and adults who display symptoms of Autism and the behaviors mentioned above.
Any breed of dog can train to be a service dog, but they must have a calm and gentle temperament. Labradors and Golden Retrievers are typically used as they are, by nature, gentle breeds.
Service dogs will receive intense training alongside families out in the community. There are certain organizations and charities that work with puppies and dogs, taking them through the training process and providing individual support to the families they will join. Many charities offer this service free of charge, and each application for a dog is taken on an individual basis.
So, what specific ways can service dogs help?
Some children with Autism lack awareness of their surroundings and may wander away from caregivers not just when outdoors but also out of the house. They are unaware of the dangers that exist in the environment such as traffic, pools, and strangers. They often run off and have no idea about car speed and potential risk.
Service dogs are trained to sniff out scents of individuals and can assist in locating children or adults that are lost. They use tracking to find kids in places that parents and carers may not have thought to look. Using an assistance dog gives parents security and confidence.
Another tactic used is tethering. When out, the service dog wears a harness with a tether that’s also attached to the child to hold or wear. Any attempt to wander off will be limited or stopped by the dog. They can also help children keep safe around roads and traffic, as well as regulating walking speed.
Children with Autism can demonstrate challenging behavior and often suffer with sensory overload. When this happens, they can become agitated and have a meltdown as an outlet for their frustration. They need a structured routine and don’t cope well with change. Service dogs can help calm a child who is upset, how do they do it?
When a child starts crying, a parent or carer can command the dog to sit with the child and place its head in the lap. When the child starts to stroke the fur, it provides a soothing action that helps to calm negative emotions. It helps to reduce blood pressure and calm the heart. A child can feel a sense of reassurance and comfort in the presence of a service dog, as well as connection and a feeling of not being alone. They are particularly helpful if an autistic child or adult suffers with night terrors.
Children with Autism or Asperger’s often engage in repetitive rituals such as rocking, jumping, flicking, spinning, twirling, etc. This self-stimulation behavior can be a way of dealing with stress, such as reducing sensory overload and the like. A service dog can be used to interrupt these behaviors by placing a paw in their hand or touching the child in some way. The close bond that develops between the child and dog can be enough to break the repetitive actions.
Using a service dog opens up other opportunities that otherwise might not be an option to children with autism.
Service dogs also provide great benefit for adults with autism as they are able to build a lasting friendship which reduces the feeling of isolation knowing they will not be judged.
It’s common for children on the autistic spectrum to experience a delay in speaking skills and communication.
Studies have suggested that children who are reluctant to talk in social situations are better able to talk around a service dog and this can bring significant improvement. Autism dogs certainly bring out the best in those with autism making them chattier, more confident and in some cases more sociable.
Socializing, for autistic people, provides a challenge that creates stress and anxiety. They struggle to make eye contact and find it difficult to bond and connect with others.
When a service dog is introduced into their lives, they bond quickly and the dog has been specially trained to be gentle and loving towards those they care for.
This special relationship helps children feel less isolated and lonely. The friend they have in their dog helps them to build their confidence to make friends with other people.
Caring for autistic children can be stressful for families, and the presence of a dog can provide much needed assistance and comfort for all involved. Dogs can help where parents can’t, and they have become a very important part of a families’ ability to cope.
There are lots of workshops that families can utilize to learn how to integrate a service dog into everyday life. The introduction of a dog can help children try something different in an otherwise regimented life.
Children are also more likely to happily go on days out in different environments if they have the safety and reassuring presence of the dog. This helps them occasionally step outside their bubble.
Some parents have noticed that their child sleeps better when the service dog is nearby. Allowing the dog to sleep on the bed is a great way to provide comfort and help soothe children when they are overwhelmed by negative emotions. It’s crucial children get enough sleep, and service dogs can benefit them greatly.
Sometimes children with autism suffer from sensory overload and dogs can help calm the nervous system just by their very presence and provide support when needed.
Learning life skills is vital for all children, and having a service dog to take care of can really help autistic children with hands-on skills. Feeding, bathing, walking, and brushing can give children a sense of purpose and help them understand that their actions have a direct impact on their dog’s well-being, further helping build the bond between them.
Integrating a service dog into the life of an autistic child or adult is one of the best gifts you can give someone who is struggling.