According to TACA (Talk About Curing Autism), an organization which began in 2000 and has grown today to 19 Chapters and 31,000 families across the United States, it is estimated there are almost 2 million people in the United States alone with autism. Autism is the fastest growing developmental disability in the United States.
In 1970 there were 1 in 10,000 autism cases reported; today the occurrence of autism is 1 in 6 children. Autism is accelerating in numbers faster than AIDS, diabetes, and cancer combined.
The question many people are still entertaining is can a service dog successfully assist children along the autism spectrum?
For Moira Giammatteo, the mother of an autistic child, founding member and manager at the TACA Foundation, it is an unequivocal – Yes, absolutely! “First and foremost, our service dog Navarro, who has been a part of our family for the past four years, is a non-demanding and non-judgmental companion for Vico,” says Moira, who lives in LA with her 17-year old autistic son, “Navarro is a social bridge, a canine ambassador that brings people to us and gives my son focus; a chance to talk about the dog with others which helps with his speech and socialization.”
Since statistics on autism have sky-rocketed, so have the service dog schools holding out hope, training, and dogs to assist and accommodate the rise in autism’s numbers. What are these schools promising and what specialty and task training is needed?
For Laura Sylvester who started Good Dog! Autism Companions — and who has an autistic son — “One of the things that is hard for kids with autism is for them to make friends,” says Sylvester, “when you bring a dog with you, when people read the patch, all of a sudden the dog and the boy’s relationship is celebrated and it brings this positive feeling.”
Service dog schools vary in their promises and programs, but there are three imperatives that parent’s of autistic children express the most need for: safety, support, and social interaction:
1) Safety Do children with autism sometimes bolt and walk away from the parent or caregiver?
Service Dogs can be trained to provide an ‘anchor’ to keep the child from wandering off by tethering (attaching) the dog to the child with a waist-belt or harness of approximately 3.5 feet in length to the dog’s collar or vest. When the child pulls away, the dog is trained to go into a down position and stay.
2) Support Do children with autism have repetitive behaviors that can accelerate and become anxiety producing?
Service Dogs can be trained to ‘target’ the child by alerting (touching) them with a paw to their foot or leg that can distract or interrupt them from repeating behaviors.
3) Social Interaction Do children with autism, as well as their parents, and caregivers’ benefit from having a Service Dog? Yes.
Service Dogs can provide a ‘positive influence’ by instilling confidence and encouraging the child to socialize with others.
Service Dogs can also provide much-needed psychological benefits for everyone involved in the Autism Triad by providing:
For Zoraya, a single parent and her daughter Karla, who is autistic, “Our service dog, Mickey, has helped both of us so much; I am more relaxed and when Karla comes home from school it is a great celebration. Mickey makes us laugh, even when we are depressed. He is amazing!” says Karla’s mother. “When Mickey is with Karla, and she becomes anxious, he lays next to her and calms her by putting his paw in the palm of her hand. Mickey is our angel sent from God.”
Integrating a service dog as part of the family and into a routine is key to a successful and lasting placement. For families bringing home a service dog for the first time, the following accommodations in the home need to be made for the family’s peace of mind and the dog’s well-being and safety:
1) Household items out of reach that can be chewed, eaten or buried by the dog
2) Kennel where the dog can sleep, or go to for a break from the family
3) Daily exercise, feeding, and bathroom schedule that establishes a consistent routine
An unexpected and added benefit of having a service dog is their non-verbal ability to teach. “Navarro has taught my son, Vico, to watch and observe behavior” says Moira Giammatteo, “the dog’s non-verbal cues tell my son ‘what is liked’ or ‘not liked’ by watching the dog’s behavior. Does Navarro need to go out, be fed, or need some space and time away from my son?”
There is presently no cure for autism; however, early intervention can help with effective management.
Autism is a puzzle being explored and expanded upon by autism organizations, parents, caregivers, service dog organizations and trainers alike.
Until there is a cure — a well-trained service dog alongside a committed parent(s) or caregiver as handler, could harness and lead the way for a better quality of life for families, communities, and children along the autism spectrum.
2) For more information on Autism Dogs, contact a reputable training organization in your area.
3) For more information on Autism research and advocacy, visit Autism Speaks