Recent studies show that having a dog can be extremely beneficial for kids with autism. The CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Protection) reports that 1 in 68 children have been identified as having Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) which is typically diagnosed around 2-4 years old. Autism has some common possible characteristics such as issues with social communication, adapting to a new environment, awareness of danger, emotional stability, etc. These conditions are now all called autism spectrum disorder.
Although there is no known cure yet for Autism, there are a number of interventions and ways of coping which have proven effective in helping a person with Autism improve.
Dogs and Children: A New Era
Journal of Pediatric Nursing, surveyed parents of children who had autism about the children’s interactions with dogs. Nearly two thirds of the families owned a dog and of these, 94 percent said their child bonded strongly with the pet. Even in the families without dogs, 7 in 10 parents said their child enjoyed interacting with dogs.
Previous research also suggests that children with autism who had a family pet from a young age tended to have greater social skills. Their interaction with dogs provided them unconditional, nonjudgmental love and companionship
Autism Dogs: How Therapy Dogs Help Autistic Children
Autism service dogs or therapy dogs provide a measure of safety to a child with autism. Autism Assistance Dogs can be trained in a variety of tasks to assist a child. These include behavior disruption to distract and disrupt repetitive behaviors or meltdowns, tethering to prevent and protect a child from wandering, and search and rescue tracking to locate a child who has wandered. When tethered to a child, such dogs can prevent or minimize the child getting injured or lost.
Therapy dogs aid in calming the child. Autistic children are subject to wild and random-seeming emotional outbursts. This trained dog remains calm and supportive during the child's tantrum and distracts them by offering themselves to be pet and hug.
Many autistic children exhibit repetitive movements and behaviors, such as rocking back and forth. With a loyal companion to hug, some autistic children spend less time exhibiting repetitive movements and tend to focus on their pet.
Since the beginning of time, dogs have earned their "best friend" status because of their uncanny ability to understand their master's emotional wants and needs. This is also true for children with autism to form this type of deep emotional bond—a bond that transcends the ability of the child to express himself verbally.
The Need for Careful Consideration
The art of involving therapy dogs in an autistic child’s upbringing is still relatively new. As a result, organizations and trainers around the country have developed differing training programs and philosophies.
On the family’s part, there is still a need for careful consideration. Parents should consider their children’s sensitivities carefully when choosing a pet to ensure a good match. To obtain a dog, parents must apply to one of the organizations that supply these animals (e.g., 4 Paws for Ability; Autism Service Dogs of America; National Service Dogs). One should also be prepared for financial responsibilities when taking this path.