In most of our articles, we described the multiple tasks that service animals can provide in order to help people with a disability. Life with a disability can be really difficult, that is why service dogs become a vital part of their handler’s lives. Since adults with a disability already have life experience and are prepared for different challenging situations on a daily basis, children with disabilities, on the other hand, are exposed to even more challenges in their lives due to lack of experience and understanding of the world.
What You Should Know About Autism?
A type of developmental disability that affects many people worldwide, especially children, is Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). It can be characterized by different conditions diagnosed as follows: autistic disorder, pervasive developmental disorder not otherwise specified (PDD-NOS), and Asperger syndrome. In general, they refer to impairments in the speech, social skills, and nonverbal communication, as well as to repetitive and restricted behavior. According to studies provided by the Centers for Disease Control, approximately 1 in 55 children in the US is affected by this spectrum disorder.
Some social impairments may include:
Not responding to name at the age of 9 months, not showing facial expressions, not making/avoiding eye contact, lack of variety of gestures or using no gestures at all at the age by 12 months, rejecting physical contact.
Communication impairments may include:
Delayed speech, repeating a certain phrase or a word, incapability to stay on a topic during conversations, robotic type of speech.
Repetitive behavior types may include:
Hyperactivity, fixation on particular objects, sensitivity to sound and light, constant twirling, jumping, or hand-flapping.
Delayed cognitive skills, epilepsy, seizure disorder, excessive anxiety, stress or fear, or the opposite- no fear at all.
As the life of children diagnosed with ASD can be really difficult some parents reach out to service animals in order to provide their children with proper assistance.
What Are Autism Assistance Dogs for Children?
Autism service dogs for children are dogs specially trained to help children with autism gain their independence and be able to perform daily life activities. A service dog is not a pet and his/her work is directly related to the symptoms of autism or developmental disorders that the child has.
Service Dogs, Therapy Dogs, or Companion Dogs for Children with Autism- Is there a Difference?
When choosing an assistance dog for their children with autism, parents need to be familiar with the different types of animals that can provide support.
Service Dogs are subject to the ADA regulations, and they must not be denied public accommodation rights. A service dog is allowed to accompany the child everywhere it goes i.e. at school, during medical treatments, when traveling, shopping...etc. Service dogs can be trained to interrupt a harmful behavior i.e. anxiety or hyperactivity and to calm down the child.
Therapy Dogs are trained to provide the individual with emotional support and comfort. They are usually used in different facilities like hospitals, nursing homes, schools, libraries. These dogs are well-behaved and have gained popularity among parents with autistic children due to the calming effect they have on the children. Although these canines can be used as support animals for children with ASD and to accompany them in the facilities mentioned above, they do not have a status of service dogs.
Therapy dogs are not granted public accommodation access rights.
A Companion dog can be every family dog that provides daily emotional support to a child diagnosed with autism. The daily care and the regular walks that a dog requires are beneficial for the child as they can obtain practical skills, and improve their social skills. Of course, a companion dog is not a service dog, as it is not trained to perform specific tasks.
Which Skills and Areas of a Child’s Life Can Be Improved By Using an Autism Service Dog?
Eye contact is an important part of non-verbal communication and the presence of а service dog can notably improve it. As service dogs are trained to make eye contact with the individual they support and to be able to focus on them, a child with autism can get used to the eye contact. When the child starts feeling comfortable with the dog’s eye contact, this feeling may be redirected to people as well.
The presence of a service dog can help a child participate in a conversation easily. Questions related to the dog’s name, breed and age may be asked by people. As a child is likely to remember the answers to frequently asked questions, it can be able to take part in the conversation. The self-confidence of the child and its conversation skills will improve. Moreover, the regular use of command words, when asking the dog to perform a task, will improve their speech.
The presence of a service dog can be very helpful for a child with autism since it can learn to be more emphatic, socially adequate, and recognize non-verbal signs like body language and facial expression.
Emotional state and behavioral issues
As children with autism may be over-sensitive to different stimuli and experience emotionally unstable episodes, the presence of a service dog will help them overcome these episodes and to calm down. A service dog can be trained to provide tactile stimulation (especially a Psychiatric Service Dog) by gently nudging, hugging the child, jumping on its lap (related to small breeds), or fulfilling the “chin” command.
Children tend to be afraid of visiting medical facilities. A service dog can relieve the feeling of fear and anxiety, by accompanying the child to different facilities or public spaces. Participating in the training of a service dog can be seen as an opportunity for the children with autism to deal easily with the variety of activities, places, and people they meet on a daily basis.
The daily interaction with a service dog like exercising, training, grooming, petting can teach a child with autism different activities, improve its cognitive skills and create a daily routine. Being involved in the dog’s raising can lead to the child’s desire to take care of other people and itself.
Prevent the child from eloping
Some children with autism attempt to run away from their homes, which is a serious problem for their parents. Often children with autism are physically hard to control. When a service dog is attached to the child, it is less likely to be able to run away. In addition, a service dog can be trained to interfere with certain movements of the child.
Alerting the parents
A service dog can be trained to recognize potentially dangerous activities in that the child may want to be engaged and to alert its parents.
What Should Every Parent Consider Before Getting An Autism Service Dog?
Before getting an autism service dog for your child you need to be sure that the child is not afraid of dogs and can get along with them. It is not mandatory that the child is an extreme dog lover, but it should be able to get along with them and not feel afraid of dogs in general. The child should not be allergic to dog fur as well.
As service dogs are trained to perform tasks, some of which can be very demanding, they need playtime and relaxation time in order to recover. Parents of children with autism need to be patient, motivated and devoted to the training and raising of the dog. If/when the behavior of the child changes through the years, the tasks that the service dog needs to perform, should be updated accordingly. The process should be supervised constantly.
Who Is the Handler of an Autism Service Dog for Children?
This type of service dog is handled by the child's parent or a third party at home and by an educator at school. The ASD service dogs are trained to follow commands given by their handler.
Best Breeds For Autism Service Dogs
When looking for an autism service dog breed, you need to consider which features the breed should possess. Best breeds as service dogs for children with autism need to be calm, with a stable temperament, patient, to be easy-going, to be appropriate as family dogs, to be intelligent, and able to perform different tasks. As we explained in the beginning of the article the ASD is related to a range of disorders and every child may have different needs.
Some of the most suitable breeds as autism service dogs are considered: Golden Retriever, St. Bernard, Labrador Retriever, Poodle (or a mix of two breeds- Labradoodle), German Shepherd, Collie, Samoyed, Bernese Mountain Dog, Yorkshire Terrier, Pug, Beagle.
How Much Does an Autism Service Dog Cost?
According to the National Service Animal Registry, the average cost of a service dog is $15,000-$30,000 approximately. Fortunately, there are courses and guides that help people with different types of disabilities to train their service dog.