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Dogs have proven to be valuable allies in helping many individuals with disabilities.
Most people are familiar with guide dogs for the blind but you can also get diabetes service dogs that can detect a blood sugar spike and autism service dogs that can help orient and support individuals with autism.
Autism is a developmental disability that is caused by differences in brain growth and structure.
It can result in a variety of behavioral and social differences from the neurotypical population, such as difficulty communicating, trouble maintaining focus, or overstimulation.
Cases range on a spectrum from mild to serious; for example, one person might simply miss some of the more subtle social cues whereas another person can’t bear to be in public due to overstimulation and may wander into dangerous situations.
Service dogs have been supporting people with autism since the late 1990s, especially children.
They are trained to give specific types of support; for example, they can help a person identify a real emergency in an overstimulated environment, stop them from leaving their home unsupervised, and help them become calm when they become stressed.
They can also provide important companionship and emotional support.
In this article, we will look more at the role of autism service dogs and how they can be part of the support network for an individual and their family.
We will also look at where and how you might be able to find an autism service dog.
What Is An Autism Service Dog?
Like other service dogs, autism service dogs are animals trained specifically to complete certain tasks to mitigate a disability.
The exact tasks each dog is trained to perform depend on the needs of the individual, as every manifestation of autism is different.
Because of this, if you visit an organization that trains autism service dogs, you won’t find dogs to fit your needs ready and waiting.
Instead, you will find intelligent dogs from highly trainable breeds, such as Labrador retrievers and golden retrievers, which have probably already received extensive obedience training.
If the organization decides that a service dog is a good fit for your case, they will identify specific tasks the dog can be trained to do.
Then they will begin the training while also teaching you how to work with the dog.
When a service dog is placed with a child with autism, they will usually be part of a three-unit team, which includes the child with autism, their caretaker, and the dog.
The dog will take commands from the carer while caring for the child. When placed with adults, the arrangement will depend on individual circumstances.
What Tasks Are Autism Service Dogs Trained To Do?
Autism service dogs can be trained to do a huge range of different things, but some tasks are more common than others.
These are based both on shared needs among many people with autism and the types of tasks that dogs are most suited to learn.
People with autism may not pay close attention to their surroundings and have a tendency to wander off, or they may act impulsively, and when they act without thinking they could get lost.
Autism service dogs can be trained to track an individual by scent quickly when needed.
People with autism often find it difficult to distinguish between and judge different stimuli.
If there is a phone ringing, a pot boiling, music in the background, and a smoke alarm going off, they can struggle to know where to focus their attention.
An autism service dog can help them identify the most important.
Dogs can help supervise children with autism and alert nearby adults to dangerous situations, such as the child going somewhere they shouldn’t or playing with items that could be dangerous.
This is when a dog is attached to a child by a tether to limit how far a person can wander from their dog.
This service is most commonly used with children, so when using this option the dog should be kept on a lead and both the dog and child should be supervised.
Tethering can be controversial, though, as many people worry about sudden strong pulls on the dog’s collar.
When a person becomes overstimulated and needs to ground themselves again, a dog can help.
Lying on the person’s feet and applying pressure can be effective, or placing their paws on the person’s knees to positively draw their attention.
Benefits Of An Autism Service Dog
Well-known dog trainer Chris Fowler started training autism service dogs in 1996, and while many people who have worked with these dogs provide anecdotal evidence for their effectiveness, there have also been few scientific studies.
In addition to the tasks that they complete, a number of additional benefits are associated with using autism service dogs.
Kids with autism, and some adults too, often have trouble making friends due to their social and communication challenges.
Their autism service dog can provide them with much-needed companionship that can reduce loneliness.
An autism service dog can also act as a social bridge. While other children might struggle to relate to another child with autism, a friendly dog can suddenly make them very popular. It can help children bond and create new friendships.
Many caretakers of individuals with autism note that they struggle to sleep, but that they manage to sleep better when they share a bed with their companion dog.
Good sleep is often a factor in how well-equipped an individual is to face the day’s challenges.
Learning how to take care of their dog, for example brushing their dog and feeding them, can help them learn how to care for themselves and others and manage their responsibilities.
Teaching their dog commands and seeing their dog respond to them when they can communicate well can help motivate autistic children to develop their communication skills.
Assisting With Transitions
New places and situations are often the biggest challenges for individuals with autism.
The companionship of their familiar support animal can help them cope with this challenge.
How To Get An Autism Service Dog?
To look into finding an autism service dog for an adult or a child, you must get in contact with individual organizations that specialize in training and partnering dogs with families.
A list of organizations active in the United States is provided in the following section.
When looking for an organization to work with, it is important that they meet a proper professional standard.
This ensures that the needs of the individual are appropriately assessed, dogs are properly trained, and support is given for the dog to do their work within the household.
Minimum standards include:
- Monthly follow-ups with clients for at least the first six months of the partnership and annual check-ins after that.
- Working with clients to ensure they understand training techniques and the proper approach for working with the dog, and how to meet the care needs of the dog.
- Will work with a client on a continuing basis to develop new skills for the dog as needed.
Remember that it is important to confirm what the organization says about itself with referrals.
Once you have identified an organization you would like to work with, there will be an application process.
There may be a small cost attached to this depending on the setup of the organization.
They will request detailed information regarding the person with autism, whether they are a child or adult, and the kinds of support that they need.
This will allow them to determine whether a service dog is an appropriate support option for that individual.
This should include information on their diagnosis, specific challenges, and any other therapies that they are participating in.
They will also request information on who will be trained to facilitate the support provided by the dog.
This is usually a parent, guardian, or caregiver. They will also ask for details about the living situation, including any other pets that live in the home.
When speaking with the organization, ask questions about the kind of dog that will be trained to work with you.
They are most often golden retrievers, Labradors, or a mix with these breeds, such as Labradoodles.
Do not pay any money beyond the application fee or a modest registration fee until a contract has been signed.
Reputable organizations will not ask you to do so in advance, but training an autism service dog can cost anything from $12,000-$30,000 so there will be significant costs involved once a contract is in place.
However, many of these businesses are non-profit organizations and will place dogs at no charge to the individual. There’s sometimes a small application fee in the range of around $100.
Get ready for a long-term commitment. It could take months or more for a dog to be trained to meet the specific needs of an individual.
In fact, an organization promising to place a dog with you within less than a year of specific training is a major red flag.
The relationship with both the dog and the organization is then ongoing to ensure that the dog is able to meet the person’s needs and that all parties, including the individual with autism, the handler, and the dog, are safe.
Beware! Do not trust any organization that says that it can train your existing dog as an autism service dog.
Existing pets can be trained as emotional support animals, but it is extremely unlikely that they will be able to be trained for this more specialized work.
Training must usually begin when the dog is a puppy.
Organizations That Train And Place Autism Service Dogs
4 Paws For Ability
This is a nonprofit that works to enrich the lives of children with disabilities and veterans by placing highly trained service dogs with them.
They also work to educate the public about service dogs and their role in public spaces.
Visit: 4 Paws For Ability
Assistance Dogs International
This is a coalition of not-for-profit organizations that work to improve knowledge of the role that dogs can play in autism service and improve training for these dogs.
They also advocate for the legal rights of people with disabilities to have the support of a service dog.
Visit: Assistance Dogs International
This organization properly trains select rescue dogs to work with children with autism and their families and teaches families how to work with rescue dogs.
Visit: Blessings Unleashed
This organization places service dogs with individuals with a variety of disabilities, including autism. They provide ongoing support to ensure quality partnerships.
Visit: Canine Companions
Custom Canines Service Dog Academy
This organization is run by volunteer professionals working to train and pair service dogs with people with disabilities to enhance their lives.
Visit: Custom Canines Service Dog Academy
What breed of dog is best for autism?
Intelligent dogs that learn quickly and have a naturally friendly disposition make the best autism service dogs.
These include Labrador retrievers, golden retrievers, and border collies.
Should I get my autistic child a dog?
Every autism case is different, and whether your child is a good match for a service dog depends on their individual case.
You should contact your child’s primary healthcare provider and an organization that specializes in support dogs to discuss your case.
How much does a service dog cost?
Separate from the cost of caring for a dog, you can expect a service dog to cost between $15,000 and $30,000 to complete the training of a dog, which could take around a year.
Do You Need An Autism Service Dog?
Do you care for someone who might benefit from the support of an autism service dog?
Speak to their healthcare provider to see what they think, and then contact your closest organization that works with service dogs to understand your options.
Do you have an autism service dog or are you looking into getting one?
If so, tell us about your experience in the comment section below.
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