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Autism Service Dogs

  • Publish Date : 2011/12/15 - (Rev. 2014/04/29)
  • Author : Wendy Taormina-Weiss
  • Contact : Disabled World


Service dogs can be trained for some people with autism with the intention of assisting them to gain greater independence.

Main Document

The numbers of people with autism has risen dramatically, with one report titled, The epidemiology of autism spectrum disorders, stating one or two people in every thousand experiences autism.

A type of assistance dog specifically trained to help people who have disabilities including visual or hearing impairment, and also to help people with mental disabilities including Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and severe depression. Desirable character traits include good temperament or psychological make-up, good health including physical structure, ability and train-ability. Service dogs are sometimes trained and bred by service dog organizations. Some dogs are donated by private breeders, and some are selected from shelters. Any breed or mixture of breeds of dog might produce a representative capable of service work, though few dogs have all of the qualities in health, temperament, ability, train-ability and physical ability needed. Such a dog may be called a "service dog" or an "assistance dog," depending largely on country. Other common names include "helper dog," "aide dog," and "support dog."

The experience of autism varies among those with the disorder. Levels of abilities vary, with some people with autism experiencing little difficulty in activities of daily living, while others have substantial limitations related to the activities others take for granted.

One of the myths about people with autism is that they have difficulty with feeling emotions. While autism was once considered to be a form of mental illness, it is now recognized as a form of sensory processing disorder. People with Autism Spectrum Disorders might have difficulty with recognizing and processing more subtle social cues in the facial expressions, inflections, body language, or intonations of others, resulting in confusion in learning how to both recognize and exhibit expression of emotions. However; people with autism do not lack the ability to feel emotions.

Other forms of sensory processing disorders include deafness and blindness. Service dogs may be trained for some people with autism with the intention of assisting them to gain greater independence, confidence, as well as the ability to perform activities of daily living they might not otherwise be able to do. Many of the service dogs for people with autism are trained to perform tasks that are similar to the ones service dogs for people with other sensory processing disabilities perform. For example; a guide dog for a person who is blind may signal its handler when they approach an intersection so the handler knows to stop and check for traffic that is passing by. A service dog for a person with autism may be trained to do the same task although instead of providing the handler with visual information, the service dog would provide the handler with prioritizing information; 'There is something here that requires focused processing.'

Autism service dogs could signal their handlers of important sounds such as those from smoke alarms. When a person with autism is attempting to process various sensory inputs such as a smoke alarm, the sound of people outside the window, the smell of the air freshener, the feel of the fabric on the couch and more, it can take them a period of time to process the vital information - the sound from the smoke alarm. People who do not experience a form of processing impairment automatically recognize a smoke alarm out of all of these sensory inputs, while a number of people with autism may not be able to do so without concentration and consideration. They are aware of what a smoke alarm means and the urgency associated with it, they simply have to think through a process to come to the conclusion that they need to leave immediately. For a person who is deaf, a service dog might signal them of such an important event. A service dog for a person with autism might do the same in regards to a smoke alarm, as well as other events to include:

  • A telephone ringing
  • A person at the door
  • A kitchen timer alarm
  • An alarm clock buzzing
  • A baby crying for attention

Or many other types of events that require attention on the part of the person. The service dog's signal reminds the handler to cease other processing and focus on the other event the dog is indicating. An autism service dog can guide a handler who is confused from a situation that is over-stimulating them on command, the same as a guide dog would guide their handler home on command. An autism service dog may also be trained to find a particular person such as a caregiver, should its handler become over-stimulated.

Autism service dogs may help with notifying their handler when their handlers are doing particular repetitious behaviors referred to as, 'stimming.' Many times these behaviors; hand flapping for example, benefit the person because they are calming. Some stimming behaviors though are not beneficial, such as head banging, and have the potential to be harmful. While it is not the service dog's place to control the behavior of its handler, the dog can notify the handler of something the handler might not be aware of. The handler can then make a decision to either continue stimming, choose a different type of stimming behavior, or to cease stimming entirely.

In some instances, when a person with autism becomes over-stimulated, pressure on their body can have the effect of being very calming. Some people use tightly wrapped or weighted blankets in order to create a pressure effect with this result, although it is not always easy or convenient to carry blankets like these around. If a person with autism has a service dog; however, the dog can apply the same type of comforting pressure on the person's body. Questions remain as to whether this qualifies as a task because the dog doesn't necessarily have to be trained to do it. There is no particular reason not to benefit from the ability of an autism service dog to do this, it is a bonus from a dog that is already considered to be a service dog trained to perform other tasks.

Over the years a trend has developed of tethering very young children with autism to service dogs with the intention of keeping the child from either bolting or running away. In other instances, the service dog is perceived as some form of babysitter and is expected to notify parents when a child with autism attempts to leave the house. The service dog community frowns on these practices because of safety reasons, although it has yet to be tested in court whether autism service dogs can legally be considered service dogs or not.

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