Specific tasks/behaviors of trained autism assistance dogs vary between training organizations and needs of the individual client, however they MAY include any of the following:
Help with Safety:
A behavior common to autism is a tendency to wander away, also known as “elopement”. Parents often report that their children are able to escape from even the most secured environments, so families often have multiple locks on every door and window in the home. Additionally, children with autism often don’t respond to their names consistently, if they respond at all, and have difficulty understanding/responding to directions related to safety (i.e. “Stop!”, “Come here”, “Stay with me”). They may not be aware of or fully comprehend the many dangers in their environment (i.e. a busy street, a stranger with ill intentions, a neighbor’s pool, a nearby pond/lake). Many parents report that their greatest fears center around their child going missing, eloping in public, or darting into the path of an oncoming car.
As with all dogs, Autism Assistance dogs have incredible noses and can be trained to recognize the scent of an individual. Using this skill Autism Assistance dogs may be trained in search and rescue and can follow the child’s scent, bringing parents or handlers to the child. This task can be crucial if the child with autism elopes from the home or while out in public.
While out in public, wandering can be prevented by utilizing a tether system in which the dog wears a harness with an attached tether/leash for the child to wear or hold. This system must be diligently supervised by parents and the primary leash should always be in the parent’s hand. (Note: A dog should never be tethered only to a child with autism!) Often simply holding the secondary leash is enough to give the child security and a boundary, which may result in reduced attempts to wander. If a child with autism still attempts to wander, the secondary leash may be attached to something the child is wearing (i.e. a belt or backpack) so the dog will be able to act as an anchor. Dogs can also be trained to “down” on command, allowing the child to move within the area the tether allows, essentially in a circular area around the dog. Note: Although service dogs are highly trained, they are still dogs and do not have the ability of higher judgement or reasoning skills. They are unable to make sophisticated decisions regarding the safety of the environment. They are NEVER expected or intended to take the place of a responsible and attentive adult caregiver.
Behavior Intervention: Children with autism often exhibit challenging behaviors that are difficult to address. Difficulties in sensory processing may result in “sensory overload”. Children who have limited verbal skills or are nonverbal may become agitated and experience behavioral meltdowns. For a number of reasons, children with autism experience feelings of fear and anxiety. Some of these children may even cause self-injury due to repetitive behaviors.
Interrupting Repetitive Behaviors
As reported by many parents, repetitive behaviors can sometimes be curtailed by a physical touch or cue from a caregiver. An Autism Assistance Dog can be trained specifically to respond to a child’s repetitive behaviors., For example, if a child were repeatedly hitting their head, the dog could learn to recognize that as a cue to gently nudge the child’s chest or paw at their leg in an attempt to interrupt the behavior. Some families have reported that redirection from the dog is often more successful than parental attempts.
An Autism Assistance Dog can be trained to provide assistance with meltdowns by providing calming and comforting interactions while in proximity of the child (i.e. physical pressure/leaning on the child, licking/kissing the child) on the parent’s command at the first signs of a meltdown or at any point during. It is possible for the dog intervening to either reduce the duration/severity of the meltdown or even prevent it from occurring altogether. These skills are task trained and meet the definition of a service dog; this differs from an Emotional Support Animal whose simple presence provides comfort but is not trained to complete specific calming tasks.
Deep Pressure Therapy
Many children with autism find weighted blankets, firm hugs, or other means of pressure on the body to be calming and regulating. Autism Assistance Dogs can be trained for a task that involves placing their body on the child’s to offer that beneficial deep pressure on the parent/handler’s command. This can be useful during episodes of anxiety, overstimulation, at the onset of a meltdown, etc. In addition, this task can encourage relaxation during bedtime to help with falling asleep, night wakings, and anxiety related to sleeping alone in their room.
Sometimes children with autism have other medical conditions (hearing loss, vision impairment, seizures, diabetes, anxiety), and autism service animals can be cross-trained to perform tasks related to these conditions, as well.
In addition to the trained tasks previously mentioned, autism assistance dogs may also provide the following benefits for people with autism:
There are some organizations who place assistance dogs at no cost to the individual with disabilities, however these may have a very selective application process or long wait list and therefore may not be an option for all families. Some organizations who do not charge a fee to the client/family will request a minimum fundraising amount, which may be a significant portion of the training expenses (ie $10,000+). Companies that do charge for their service dogs typically charge between $15,000-30,000+, although this may not even cover the full cost of training the dog. Therapy dog programs are typically less expensive, however this can vary widely.
This varies between organizations, however it is typically a lengthy, extensive, multi-step process. In fact, some resources for families advise them to be wary of any organization that has a brief application process or places dogs in under a year.
The process often involves many steps which may include:
Service dogs receive extensive training and official certification to help perform functions that present a challenge for a person with a disability. The Americans with Disabilities Act mandates that people can bring their service dogs in all public areas – including restaurants and stores. Service dogs typically wear a “cape,” or harness, that identifies them and lets bystanders know they are working and should not be disturbed.
Each service dog is trained according to the needs of the person it will assist. For instance, it may help someone with a mobility problem, visual or hearing impairment, epilepsy (alerting to seizures), diabetes (alerting to high or low blood sugar), an anxiety disorder (PTSD) or a developmental disorder such as autism.
As their name suggests, therapy dogs are trained to provide affection and comfort in therapeutic situations. Typically, they work in hospitals, nursing homes and other healthcare and mental health facilities. They can assist with physical or occupational therapy, or simply help calm a patient undergoing a stressful medical procedure.Outside of medical and institutional settings, therapy dogs have become popular in the autism community for their calming influence and ability to promote social interaction.
Many but not all therapy dogs have special training. (Many simply have an exceptionally calm, affectionate and tolerant nature.) When therapy dogs work in a professional setting, they often wear an identifying cape. Some private owners likewise use an identifying cape or bandana. However, therapy dogs don’t have federally mandated access to public places under the Americans with Disabilities Act. And, it is important to note that therapy dogs are typically NOT trained to do the specialized tasks that service dogs are trained to do.
Yes. The Americans with Disabilities Act guarantees the right of a person with a qualifying disability to be accompanied by their individually trained Assistance Animal in public venues. The Fair Housing Act allows for trained Assistance Animals in apartments or other no-pet housing at no additional cost to the person with a disability. More information can be found at www.ada.gov and www.usdoj.gov/crt/housing/title8.php
Although there are no specific guidelines or requirements, dog breeds must be calm, non-aggressive, intelligent breeds. Golden Retrievers and Labradors are popular breeds. Many children with autism experience allergies, however, so Standard Poodles, Labradoodles, and Golden Doodles are also popular choices.