Autism Service Dogs
A Reassuring Presence:
The Benefits of Autism Service Dogs
by Jenny Wise, Dec. 6, 2018.
Over the past decade, the Centers for Disease Control have noted a sharp increase in the number of children who register on the autism spectrum. According to the CDC, 1 in 68 children born in the United States are autistic. It’s not known exactly what causes the condition, but there is an increasing awareness of the need to provide autistic youths between age 3 and 18 with some reliable means of support to help them develop socially and emotionally. Consequently, there has been an increase in the number of community and parental support groups who interact via play scenarios and day care settings as well as special classes.
Thanks to the Americans with Disabilities Act, the number of service dogs trained to help autistic children has also increased - a positive trend, because these animals quickly become an invaluable emotional touchstone for autistic children, particularly those who struggle with severe emotional upset in difficult or confusing social situations. As such, service dogs fill a need that is unique.
Service dogs are excellent sources of emotional support. They are a reassuring presence for autistic children. Often, a strong emotional bond is formed. Autistic children benefit from the unconditional love of a presence that doesn’t judge or criticize, and makes a positive impact on a child’s sociability and ability to manage sensory stimuli. Service dogs are also an asset to parents of autistic children, who don’t have to worry about their child being frightened, disoriented or overwhelmed, because service dogs can sense when their young companions are upset and in need of reassurance.
A 2014 study published in the Journal of Pediatric Nursing confirmed the emotional value of service dogs for autistic children (and their parents), reporting that more than 90 percent of parents indicated their kids had forged a strong and reinforcing emotional relationship with a service dog. The report also spelled out specifically how this relationship had benefited their young companions.
An autistic child who struggles to cope with sensory stimuli is easily overwhelmed with sensory information; the effort to process what they’re experiencing becomes too overpowering. Sensory overload can cause anxiety, stress and even physical discomfort, leading to withdrawal or an emotional meltdown. An autism service dog can help autistic children remain calm, providing a positive distraction when sensory stimuli becomes overwhelming.
Caring for and interacting with a dog on a regular basis helps autistic children develop the ability to socialize and form emotional bonds with others. The strength of this relationship has a validating effect on the value and desirability of forming social relationships, which might otherwise be fraught with fear and mistrust based on past interactions with people outside a child’s immediate family circle. The child-service dog relationship also helps prevent antisocial behaviors, self-harm (a destructive coping mechanism for nervous or frustrated autistic children), and fleeing.
Self-harming is one of the most distressing and dangerous responses to overwhelming social or sensory interactions. Children may hit or scratch themselves or bang their head against a wall or other hard object. Service dogs are trained to intercede in such situations, preventing their companions from doing serious damage to themselves.
Service dogs benefit autistic children in many ways. They’re a source of constant reassurance, physical protection, and emotional support. Having a strong emotional presence nearby boosts a child’s self-confidence and empowers him to engage in social relationships in ways that might otherwise be impossible.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR, JENNY WISE, curator of SpecialHomeEducator.com
When I was a kid, my mom used to send me outside for hours at a time. I built forts and collected nature’s treasures and got more mosquito bites, scrapes, and bruises than I could count. I am happy to say that, though I do keep a closer eye on them than my own mom did, three of my four kids enjoy many of those same freedoms. But what about the “other” one?
Well, she is on the autism spectrum. While my daughter is smart, funny, and capable, her anxiety and lack of social awareness make it difficult to just “go play.” For years, she stayed inside when her sibling went outdoors unless her father or I could go with her. Then we did something that changed all of our lives: we fenced in the yard and got a dog. Within a few weeks, our daughter wanted to be outside with her new best friend every minute of the day. We saw her confidence increase, her mood improve, and her social skills improve.
Even as a parent of a child with special needs who runs a blog on the subject, I never saw any research or ran across any resources about this part of parenting a child with special needs -- how small changes to your environment can help your child become more independent.
Now that I’ve found these tips and tricks, I want to scream them from the rooftops!
Here are some of the articles I’ve found particularly useful: