Children on the autism spectrum often have special needs, and because of the diversity of that spectrum, the needs of one autistic child might greatly differ from another. Until recently, many people didn’t know much about autism or how it manifested itself differently in children. That often made it difficult to come up with viable solutions for how to help, or how to make life easier for the children struggling on the spectrum.
Charities & Awareness
Thankfully, more awareness has been raised in recent years. Even successful entrepreneurs like Jord Poster have taken an interest in autism research and assistance. Poster helped to found Tickets for Charity, and one of the 100 different charities that benefits from that effort is Autism Speaks, an autism advocacy group.
As we continue to learn more about autism, there has also been an increase in awareness and research about what can help — especially when it comes to children. It isn’t just about behavioral therapy anymore. Alternative therapies and support options are becoming more popular because of the diverse ranges of children on the autism spectrum.
Options like music therapy can help with engagement and can give kids with autism a way of truly communicating. Using animal-assisted therapy can also help by providing comfort to your child and reducing the severity of some of their symptoms.
One increasingly popular option is the use of service dogs (or therapy/companion dogs). These dogs help people with many different types of disabilities, from blindness to rheumatoid arthritis. We’ll get into the differences between service dogs, therapy dogs, and companion dogs later. The important thing to understand is how and why they’re being praised when it comes to helping autistic children. So, how can dogs make a difference?
One common problem children with autism face is a lack of social skills. Studies have shown that autistic children who have bonded with a dog often have better social skills, more confidence, and are more independent.
They’re more likely to initiate a conversation with someone or answer a question when asked. While some children on the autism spectrum are non-verbal, those who aren’t may still have a difficult time speaking up or holding a conversation with someone. Research has shown that dogs make a difference for those with autism who can communicate, giving them the confidence to do so.
This self-confidence and sense of independence is likely due to the bond that forms between the dog and the child. Your child isn’t going to see a dog as a service animal or worker, they’re going to see it as a loving, non-judgemental friend and companion. They may show signs that they want to take care of the dog, which fosters even more independence.
As a result, introducing a dog into your autistic child’s life can have even more benefits than you might expect, including both psychological and physical benefits. A dog can help to reduce feelings of stress and anxiety, which can lead to your child being less irritable and less likely to throw temper tantrums or get overly upset over small setbacks. That makes life easier on the whole family, and when your child feels less stressed and angry over things out of their control, it’s a win for their overall mental and emotional health, too.
A Soothing Learning Companion
Many children with autism take special education classes. Special education teachers have the training necessary to work with each child’s individual needs, so they can all learn and grow. A qualified special education teacher can really help a child with autism to thrive in the classroom.
Still, many kids on the spectrum often have anxiety or fear when it comes to attending a new place, being around multiple people, etc. Having a dog by their side throughout the school day can make the experience easier. A therapy dog can help to calm your child at school and soothe their worries, especially once they develop a bond with the dog at home. When autistic children are able to feel comfortable and calm, it’s easier for them to learn and adapt to their surroundings.
In a class with other children who have special needs, having a dog can benefit all of them. Some schools across the country have actually started programs to bring in therapy dogs, because they recognize how quickly a dog can change a student’s mood and stress level. That’s incredibly important for a student with autism and their ability to learn.
Again, this can also help with socialization at school, and can make them feel safer around their teacher and classmates. In turn, that makes the teacher’s job easier, and they can more effectively do their job for every student in the class. It ends up being a win-win situation for everyone.
How to Introduce a Dog Into Your Home
In any home, introducing a dog is a big commitment. When you have a child with autism, introducing a dog should be something that benefits them, not something that adds more stress. You also have to think about the rest of your family, too. Will a dog add stress for them, or cause more chaos and noise that could have adverse effects on your child? If you do decide on getting a dog, preparing yourself, your family, and your home the right way will make the process much smoother and easier for everyone.
It might seem like a minor detail, but having your home “pet ready” can be a big part of the process. You’ll want to have all the right supplies for a dog, including toys, food dishes, a crate, and more. You might even want to invest in a special vacuum and other cleaning supplies to deal with pet hair or other messes the dog might make, in order to maintain normalcy once the dog is introduced. If you don’t have your house fully prepared, having a dog around can start to feel overwhelming very quickly.
Prepping Your Dog
Keep the dog itself in mind when you’re preparing your home, as well. They’ll be coming into a new place and might feel anxious or nervous. It can take time for a dog and family to get used to one another. Making your home as dog friendly as possible will make your new four-legged friend more comfortable, and they’re likely to warm up to you and the rest of your family faster. Planning ahead of time will help to keep a calm and controlled environment that’s better for everyone.
Finally, prepare your child. Even if they’re eager to get a dog and you’ve already planned for it, a new face (even a furry one) in the house could be intimidating at first. If you have already decided on a particular dog, have your child visit with the dog a few times in a neutral location before introducing it to your home. This will allow them both to get more comfortable with one another, and your child can start to see the dog as a friend and a source of comfort before it even sets foot in your home.
Is a Dog Right for your Autistic Child?
With so many types of therapy and helpful options for children with autism, is a dog the best option? Ultimately, it depends on your child and how you think they would respond best. First of all, it’s important to understand the difference between therapy dogs, service dogs, and companion dogs:
- Therapy dogs are used in official therapy capacities — such as in counseling sessions, school settings, or hospital visits — to provide comfort and calm affection to the people they interact with. They must have therapy dog certification and pass certain obedience requirements such as the “Canine Good Citizen” test. They typically live as a pet with an owner and are not working dogs outside of their therapy visits.
- Service dogs are typically professionally trained, though sometimes owner trained, to perform specific tasks for their handler. Training typically takes around two years before they are ready to work. They are allowed public access and can go with their handler everywhere. While certification is not required and can not be asked for by businesses without violating the ADA, having documentation of proof of training can be helpful in certain cases.
- Companion animals, sometimes also referred to as emotional support animals (ESAs), act as support at home by being emotionally attentive and a reliable presence to their owner to keep them in helpful routines. They are more similar to pets in that they don’t require intense training and are not allowed public access, but they are protected by Fair Housing and cannot be denied when renting.
If your child lives with other types of disabilities or needs help with daily tasks, a service dog can be a great option. For many kids with autism, though, a well-trained companion dog at home or therapy dog in therapy sessions is all they need to benefit.
Once you have a better understanding of the type of dog that would be the best fit, you have to decide if a dog is even a viable option for your child. Remember, no two kids with autism are the same, so you can’t simply assume getting a therapy or companion dog will help your child if they’re not comfortable around dogs in general. Some questions to ask yourself before getting a dog include:
- How does your child feel about animals/dogs?
- Do they get scared of animals easily?
- How would it affect others in the house?
- Will you be able to care for a dog and your child when you’re in public?
If your child isn’t ready for a dog, you may consider a cat instead. Cats are often easier to take care of and can be less intimidating for some children who might otherwise be scared of dogs. Because cats are typically calmer than dogs, they can be exceptionally soothing for children with a lot of stress and anxiety. You can also test how your child will respond to a pet by visiting friends with well-behaved pets and see if those interactions are positive.
A pet of any kind may be beneficial to your autistic child when it comes to providing them with a sense of comfort. When they have something to look after, it can also help with their social skills and ability to be more independent. If your child has shown an interest in dogs, or another type of pet, don’t be afraid to explore that interest and decide if a dog is right for your child and your family.
Frankie Wallace writes about a wide variety of different topics, from environmental issues to politics. Wallace currently resides in Boise, Idaho.