In March 2016, the Center for Disease Control (CDC) released a report that called for the early intervention of testing for autism in children under 3 years old. According to their report, intervention and testing occurred in less than 50% of those children who were identified to have autism. Those children didn’t receive developmental evaluations until after 3 years of age. For those children who were tested, it was suspected over 85% of their parents had concerns over the developmental progress of their children and those concerns were either ignored or the parents didn’t know where to get support. The delayed intervention could be attributed to socio-economic status, a misunderstanding of developmental milestones, or even fear.
Over an 11 year study, the CDC has measured a 331% increase in developmental and intellectual disabilities in children 3-18 years of age attributed to autism spectrum disorder (ASD). This increase has been attributed to a diagnostic reclassification along with an increased awareness of autism in the U.S. It’s still debated what causes autism, but what is known is that it could potentially be due to genetic faults as well as harmful substances eaten during pregnancy. Regardless of the cause, autism rates are reported to show that 1 in every 68 children born in the U.S. is diagnosed as being on the autism spectrum. This is an increase from 1 in 150 children in 2000, and although this increase is cause for concern, there’s hope that this number has stabilized and is showing signs of dropping from the latest studies.
For parents who have a child that is diagnosed with ASD, there is hope and support. Community and parental support groups offer a range of services from weekly meetings, connections with supportive doctors, ASD-specific daycares and playgroups, and classes for how to cope with issues that arise from caring for a child with autism. These supportive communities have ample access to the types of services and providers that are often needed to make it through the day, as well as set up a child with autism for success.
How Service Dogs Help
In addition to community and support groups, the rise of service animals to support parents with children who have autism is also on the rise. The Americans with Disability Act defines service dogs as “any guide dog, signal dog, or other animals individually trained to provide assistance to an individual with a disability.” These service animals quickly became a keystone in a disabled child’s life, making a significant impact on sociability, sensory management, and increased ability to bond.
Dogs have often been used in varying degrees for medical support. This support ranges for people who suffer from emotional, mental, and physical disabilities. For children with autism, this is no different. Service dogs are often key to a child’s developmental success as well as a strong support tool for parents who will often use a service dog to support their needs as a parent.
Research and Proof Autism Service Dogs Prove Valuable
The Journal of Pediatric Nursing conducted a study in 2014 that outlined the benefits of service dog ownership for children with autism. The study addressed the benefits of socialization, as well as the calming nature of dogs in children with sensory issues. In this study, 94% of parents said their children developed a strong bond with the pet. This bond creates a measured calm and ease in children with sensory issues.
However, in a study published in August 2012, there were significant differences in changes in prosocial behaviour when a dog was introduced to a child with autism versus if the dog was already part of the family at birth. Simply adding a service dog to your family may not drastically change the situation if your family already has a dog. Bonding, socializing, and caring for a pet are all social activities that help children in their development and abilities to interact with others. Introducing a service dog, for this reason, may not make more of an impact if a family already owns a dog. In the case of a child with autism, owning a dog is a health benefit for both child and parent.
History of Service Animals
Service dogs have been a staple in modern medicine as a means for supporting patient’s needs. As early as the 1700’s, it was reported that dogs were used as service animals for those with severe medical needs. However, it wasn’t until the 1920’s that the U.S. had the first “seeing eye dog” academy that trained dogs to support the needs of the blind.
The current service dog training and the importance of service animals can be attributed to the work of Bonnie Bergin who originated the concept of the “service dog.” Bergin has also been known to testify in front of Congress on the needs and benefits of using animals to support those with physical, emotional, mental disabilities. Bergin, who has received congressional recognition for the work she’s done with service animals, started a university geared towards training service animals to support people with autism.
Types of Training
What type of training does a service dog receive if they’re supporting people with autism? As we might imagine, children with autism suffer from a range of issues such as sensory overload, antisocial behaviours, self-harm, and often times running away or bolting. Dogs who are trained as companions to children with autism are trained to deal with these specific issues.
Service dogs who prevent self-harm inject themselves into situations where the child is either hitting themselves or hitting their head on the ground or a wall. Even if a child is performing a repetitive non-harmful action, the dog will put themselves between the child and the source of harm, often times putting themselves between the hard surface or nudging the child to remind themselves they are safe. Self-harm is often a common reaction for children with autism when they’re in a situation that’s frustrating and they can’t verbalize their frustrations.
For children who tend to wander off, a service dog that can track by scent is required. A wandering child can unwittingly put themselves in danger of being hit by a car, aggressive animals, mean-spirited strangers, or other natural dangers. Dogs trained to track their owners by scent can support adults in quickly finding their child.
In more extreme cases of children wandering, tether-trained service dogs can be tethered to a child for safety. These animals know that the humans they’re looking after tend to dart and run into traffic and aren’t easily pulled into one direction. Being tethered means they stick close to a parent or a safe zone as to prevent the child from running into harm’s way. Another benefit of being tethered is creating a measure of independence between the child and the parent. A child tethered to a service dog means the child can walk on their own near a parent but not necessarily always hand-in-hand. This not only provides support for the child but also creates peace of mind for the parents.
For those children who have autism and also suffer from epilepsy (almost 2%), a service dog can be trained to warn and protect a child against a pending seizure. Often times these dogs, like those trained to prevent self-harm, will put themselves and a hard surface to protect the child’s head. A trained service dog often times “predicts” or senses the oncoming seizure and can warn both the patient and the parent that a seizure is coming. Thus allowing for both the parent and patient to prepare and get the patient into a safe space.
Overall Impact on Life
In many cases when a service dog is introduced to a family, it’s reported that the severity and frequency of behavioural issues decrease and the child becomes more social and engaged. In addition to the increase in prosocial behaviours, the peace of mind that comes with a trained service dog helps reduce stress for parents and caregivers.
For children who tend to run off, a child tethered to a dog on walks or when playing outside provides the peace of mind that the child can’t run into traffic or wander off.
Having a service dog in public also allows for a more visual clue that a child may need extra help or support in their lives. Most children with autism look “normal.” Without the aide of a service dog, the judgemental stares of the unsuspecting passersby during a child’s emotional meltdown may shift to understanding that this child has a service dog for a reason.
Parents who may normally have to stay with a child while the other leaves the house for errands can go out together with the support of a service dog. Many times the dog provides the calming effect for hyper-stimulated children in over-complex and overstimulating environments. Service dogs provide a pleasant distraction from the lights and sounds that may normally contribute to the instability of run-of-the-mill situation for a child with autism. In the case of a meltdown, having the service dog provides a calming effect for a child in distress.
In extreme cases, autistic children that are nonverbal have been known to become verbal in the bonding and growing closer with their service dog. This is a significant benefit in developing closer bonding with other people in the child’s life as well as developing more social behaviours.
Training and Certification
Service dogs are highly trained, highly skilled, and in some cases can be pricey or difficult to obtain. Depending on a family’s location, some service dogs may take up to two years to obtain. However, for some families and parents of autistic children, the price and timeline is worth the wait.
Besides the arduous training process, these dogs are often bred specifically to be a service animal. The Bergin University of Canine Studies breeds their service dogs and starts training at 3-4 weeks. Their dogs learn up to 106 different commands and the average cost of a dog at their university is $25,000.
Throughout the U.S. there are hundreds of training facilities for service dogs. Some of these facilities focus on general service dogs and some on service dogs for autism support. Unfortunately, there is no one training standard for autism service dogs, and therefore anyone looking to obtain a service dog should do so with caution and with a lot of research. The most prestigious and well-known facilities provide a clear outline of how their dogs are training, the costs involved, how to get in contact, and provide additional support services both before and after the animal is placed in a home.
In addition to the extensive information provided by a prestigious training organization, these organizations will also provide guidelines for the people they’ll serve. One example of this type of organization is PAWS with a Cause. Some of these guidelines include the age of the child, physical abilities, availability of the family to continue training, the location of family, and limitations of other pets in the household.
Unfortunately, there are no clear timelines for owning a service animal for your child with autism. This means you could wait a few months or even a few years before being matched with the right animal. For most families the wait is worth it; however, there are steps a family can take to mitigate the stress of a long wait. This includes connecting with other friends or family members who have dogs as a family pet. Even this short-term solution to finding cuddle and socialization time helps children with autism.
Living with a Service Dog
According to the Americans with Disability Act (ADA), service dogs can travel anywhere their handler can travel. However, there are some cases where service animals can be excluded. It’s important to know all of the rules and regulations when it comes to owning and caring for a service animal. Over time, even though this is a working animal, a service dog will become more and more of a family member.
Whether travelling, vacationing, or relaxing at home, a service dog will quickly become a part of an autistic child’s everyday life. It will teach and support the child as well as learn to adapt to its new family environment. Not only is it important to create a strong working relationship and bond between the service animal and a child with autism, it’s just as important as creating a loving and welcoming environment for the service animal. For families who aren’t used to having a dog as a family member, there are several factors that go into bringing a dog into your home. Most of the time, a reputable service animal training facility will help support and tend to this transition.
Ultimately, service dogs have “officially” been used for several decades and with the rise in autism and autism awareness, service dogs trained specifically to support children with autism is also on the rise. Welcoming a service dog into your home to support an autistic child’s needs as well as parents’ needs is often a welcoming and natural step to support the growth, development, and peace of mind for a family already struggling with autism.