Service dogs for children and adults with an autism spectrum disorder
Help, companionship and social facilitator
Autism is a neurological disability that affects the way the person thinks, processes sensory information and interacts with others. A service dog could help to cope with a difficult situation, dealing with transitions and facilitating social interactions. Getting out with a service dog can also reduce isolation, increase exercise and help with anxiety and depression that often occur in people with Autism Syndrom Disorder (ASD).
A dog can be a great companion to a person with ASD, providing love and attention, increasing activity and reducing stress within a family. Dogs can be also be trained to interrupt repetitive behaviors like stimming or alert you when your child might be harming him/herself. They can provide deep pressure to help a person calm down, encourage a person to get out of bed, help with mobility or balance issues, pick up objects, respond to an alarm, etc. They can facilitate social interactions and relationships and expand the child's ability to communicate with others.
Not for everyone
Not every person with ASD will benefit from a service dog. If the person is afraid or uninterested in dogs, for instance, a service dog would not be a good fit. When the person is drawn to animals and naturally seeks comfort and interaction with animals, a service dog could make a significant difference in that person's life.
How do service dogs help with autism?
Trained tasks and companionship
Social interactions are essential to cognitive and linguistic development. For children with ASD, normal interactions with others are difficult and they often withdraw into their own world, isolating themselves. A service dog acts as a social facilitator, a magnet to other children who will come and ask questions about the dog and want to pet the dog. The dog provides something to talk about and with these repeated positive interactions, the child learns to open up and get more comfortable talking with others.
A service dog could also:
Help soothe a person with ASD and prevent tantrums by escalating into a meltdown. Dogs are trained to place their head on the person's lap as a calming gesture or to get on the person, applying pressure and warmth.
Provide reassurance and tactile stimulation.
Be used as a teaching tool in school or at home to help change the person's focus, calm anxiety or get the child's attention.
Assist in physical therapy and be used as a reward for completing a task.
Reassure in case of night terrors.
Get a parent when the child has a meltdown.
Track a child that tends to elope.
Help with keeping a child close when out on outings.
What science says
A recent study from the Unversity of Montreal confirmed that specifically trained service dogs can help reduce the anxiety and enhance the socialization skills of children with Autism Syndrome Disorders (ASD). The dogs had a dramatic impact on the children's stress hormone levels.