Autism can present many obstacles for both the affected child and his or her parents, and although more and more is being learned about this disorder every day, the exact cause still remains a bit of a mystery, making effective treatment extremely challenging. One treatment that is gaining popularity, however, chiefly due to the positive reports and feedback regarding its effectiveness, is the use of assistance dogs. In this article we will take a closer look at autism and its accompanying symptoms, along with some information on how assistance dogs are making a very constructive difference in the lives of autistic children.
What is Autism?
Autism is a developmental disorder that affects approximately 1 out of every 150 children, with the first symptoms usually surfacing sometime after the first year of life. Generally, autism is characterized by a triad of symptoms which includes impairment in language development, a severe delay in the development of social skills and the presence of both restrictive and repetitive behaviors. One of the mysteries of autism is that it affects people to varying degrees. Classified as a “spectrum disorder,” autism symptoms can range from profound disability, in which language and social development are almost nonexistent, to very mild, as seen in people with Asperger’s Syndrome, a form of high-functioning autism. Autism may also cause other health issues. Many children with autism, for example, experience a high rate of seizures and gastrointestinal difficulties.
Assistance Dogs and Autism
Most people have probably heard of assistance dogs that can aid the blind and those with physical disabilities, but can these dogs help with autism? According to recent reports, the answer seems to be a resounding “yes.” Studies have shown that these assistance dogs, when properly trained for specific tasks aimed at helping those with autism, can be a very effective tool for both social development and behavior modification.
The use of assistance dogs, at least in the world of autism, is fairly new territory, and although the training facilities for autism dogs are few in numbers, recent demand has prompted a dramatic increase in these services. Currently, the average waiting time for an autism service dog is 2-3 years, but experts believe the wait time will diminish greatly as more and more trainers begin offering these services.
Training assistance dogs to work with autistic children presents many challenges and can be a lengthy process which continues even after the dog has been relinquished to the child and his family. Below are some of the specific tasks these dogs can be trained to perform, all of which will help in the daily functioning of those suffering from autism:
- Work as a Team. Typically, autism dogs are taught to work as part of a team. Since the child may not be able to completely assume the role of handler, the autism dog is usually handled with one leash being held by the child (usually attached to the dog’s waist with a harness) and one that the parent will hold (usually attached to the collar). The assistance dog will have to learn to differentiate between the two leashes, discriminating between the cues of the handler and the desires of the child.
- Behavior Modification. Assistance dogs can be very effective working with children who have a tendency to wander away or bolt in open settings. They can also alert the parent when the child is beginning to approach an area that is may endanger the child’s life. These services allow the child to have a limited amount of freedom and can help parents with general supervision.
- Emotional Calming. Assistance dogs can provide emotional calming in those children who are prone to outbursts and tantrums. In return, the child’s constant presence can have the same effect on the dog.
- Social Interaction. Children with autism have a difficult time socializing normally, but the presence of a dog usually makes them more approachable to their peers. Sometimes known as “social capital” this can be one of the most important roles an assistance dog can play.
- Seizure Detection. Assistance dogs can be trained to predict the onset of a seizure and alert the parent or guardian. Naturally, this ability can help keep children safe in the event of one of these attacks.
Choosing an Assistance Dog
Not all assistance dogs will be trained to handle all of the above tasks, so it’s vitally important that you inform the trainer of all your child’s individual needs. Usually, these dogs are trained on an individual basis, learning the exact skills which will be required by you and your family, and can even include such skills as accompanying your child to school. Sometimes a transition period will have to be observed in which the dog spends some of the day with the trainer and some with his new handlers.
Keep in mind that a younger dog, one which was recently trained, will stand a better chance of bonding quickly with the child.
The obstacles and challenges faced by those with autism and their families can be difficult to navigate, but a trained assistance dog can help lessen the burden and keep your child safe.
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