Autism Service Dogs

Approximately one to two individuals in every 1,000 are diagnosed with autism, and around six in 1,000 are identified as having an Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), as detailed in Newschaffer CJ, Croen LA, Daniels J et al.’s 2007 study, “The epidemiology of autism spectrum disorders”. It’s important to note that not everyone with autism or ASD is significantly impaired by their condition. While some manage to lead relatively normal lives, others face notable challenges in performing routine daily tasks that are often taken for granted by most people.

Contrary to common misconceptions, individuals with autism are capable of experiencing emotions. Historically, autism was misclassified as a mental illness, but it is now understood as a sensory processing disorder. Those with ASD may struggle with interpreting and responding to social signals like facial expressions, body language, and vocal nuances, which can hinder their ability to learn and express emotional cues. This, however, does not affect their capacity to feel emotions.

Sensory processing disorders encompass conditions like blindness (impairment in vision processing) and deafness (difficulty in auditory processing). For some with autism, service dogs provide invaluable assistance, enhancing their independence and confidence, and enabling them to carry out daily activities. These dogs are trained similarly to service dogs for other sensory processing disabilities. For example, a guide dog alerts a blind person to an approaching intersection, while an autism service dog might perform a similar task, focusing on situations requiring detailed attention rather than visual cues.

An autism service dog can alert its handler to critical sounds, such as a smoke alarm. While an individual with autism might take longer to prioritize this sound amidst other sensory inputs, a trained dog can signal the importance of the alarm, much like how a service dog would alert a deaf person. The dog’s alert allows the handler to focus immediately on the critical sound.

These service dogs also help guide individuals with autism away from overwhelming situations, similar to how a guide dog leads a blind person to safety. Additionally, they can be trained to locate a specific person, like a caregiver, in moments of distress.

Moreover, autism service dogs assist in managing repetitive behaviors known as “stimming,” which vary from calming, like hand flapping, to potentially harmful, like head banging. The dog’s role is not to control these behaviors but to make the handler aware of them, enabling the handler to decide how to respond.

In cases of overstimulation, physical pressure can be soothing for those with autism. While weighted blankets are a common solution, they aren’t always practical to carry around. A service dog can offer this calming pressure, utilizing its presence for a comforting effect, though this function might not technically be considered a trained task.

Recently, there has been a trend of tethering very young children with autism to dogs to prevent them from wandering off. In some cases, the dogs are expected to alert parents if the child attempts to leave the house. This practice, primarily for safety reasons, has been met with disapproval within the service dog community, and its legal status as a service dog function remains untested in court.

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