Wednesday, April 3, 2013

My article for Dog Vacay on service dogs for autism

Autism Service dogs - Spring 2012 My husband and I have 4 kids ages 2, 4, 6 and 8. Our two oldest boys have autism. About 2 years ago I was doing what any good Mom of an autistic child would do… I was surfing the net! No, not for cheap deals to Hawaii … but researching any and all therapies that can assist my kids. Moms of autistic children find themselves trying to become experts in really diverse areas. Overnight we become therapists in the school of hard knocks. I stumbled across service dogs for autism and a light bulb went off in my head. I remembered the simple life of my childhood and the therapeutic effect that a child’s relationship with an animal provides. It struck me that perhaps what we could not do for our children, an animal could. We acquired Lily, a Standard Poodle from Sandyoaks Standards in Texas. Judy the breeder knew there was something special about Lily so she donated her to North Star Foundation. We were the grateful beneficiaries. People don’t know what to expect when they hear autism service dog. The public is more familiar with the Seeing Eye dog for the blind which needs longer training for a very different role. Autism Service dog organizations can train a dog for you in as little as 1 -2 years. A family may also train a dog by themselves with help from trainers. With the right training, the right dog (calm and even temperament), and commitment from the parents this can be a wonderful and affordable option for a family in need. Whatever route you choose the parent’s commitment to handling the dog is crucial. The tasks an autism service dog can do are as broad as the autism spectrum itself; these tasks are tailored to the child’s needs. For public access as a service dog, the dog must be able to perform 3 tasks to help mitigate the disability. Some examples: tracking/tethering of a wandering child; interrupting unwanted behavior; help to manage meltdowns; and street safety. In addition to public access tasks the dog can be trained to help provide stress relief; and also to provide opportunities for communication and social interaction where language skills can be practiced. A service dog can be trained to aid at night by sleeping with a child, providing deep pressure sensation, thus keeping the child in bed. Furthermore a child who assists in the training of a dog utilizes problem solving and decision making skills which can be difficult for autistic individuals. We use our dog for animal-assisted therapy. Speech therapy and occupational therapy are not usually the most fun activities for autistic children, but when an animal is included, the child’s motivation changes, and even a simple pet play session can become therapeutic given the right guidance. Meanwhile, the child doesn’t even know that they are exercising speech and motor functioning, reasoning, cognitive ability, and behavior modification. Training Lily has become a family passion that unites us and has brought healing not just to our children but to us as parents. Our son wouldn’t hug us before we had Lily, due to his sensory issues. Shortly after bringing her into our home this began to change; our son now shares affection with hugs and this is priceless.