A boy walks through the crowded halls of his school tethered to a dog who helps him remain calm in the crowd, find the correct classroom, and get settled in his seat before class starts. A family enjoys dinner at a busy restaurant with a dog laying patiently at their child’s feet. A young woman sits in a chair with her head in her hands, rocking back and forth; her dog puts his front paws on her lap and applies deep pressure until her body releases tension and she is able to carry on with her day. These are autism assistance dogs in action.
Chances are you’ve seen a service dog in action, so you already have some idea what they do for their people. Autism service dogs, like any others, are trained to perform specific tasks to help their human companions navigate the world. Autism Spectrum Disorders are characterized by impairments in communication skills and social interaction, as well as by the presence of challenging behaviors (source), and autism service dogs can be life-changing partners, helping people with autism gain confidence and independence.
Who qualifies for autism service dogs?
Anyone who has a medical diagnosis of autism or autism spectrum disorder may qualify for a service dog depending on their needs. In the U.S., most organizations training and placing autism service dogs focus on matching dogs to families with autistic children. You can learn more by contacting your state’s disability services, or reaching out to service dog programs in your area.
What Autism Service Dogs Do
Autism is a spectrum disorder, and can vary significantly in character and severity, so autism service dogs may be trained differently according to where their person falls on the spectrum. According to service dog organization Paws for a Cause, these dogs help to “improve social interactions and relationships, expand verbal and nonverbal communication, teach life skills, increase interest in activities and decrease stress within the family.” These tasks include:
- Helping their person get ready for school in the morning;
- Picking up dropped objects;
- Alerting passers-by to an emergency situation;
- Osimply act as a calming presence in their person’s life.
Whatever their particular assignment may be, autism assistance dogs provide incredible help and companionship.
One task unique to autism service dogs is noticing and responding to changes in a person’s sensory levels. Autism impacts the sensory system, and many people with autism become stressed out by uncomfortable sensations. Autism service dogs can be trained to intervene when their handler becomes over-stimulated, helping to alleviate stress and maintain safety.
This video, produced by a teenager with Aspberger’s, offers a great overview of some of the specific tasks an autism service dog may do to help ameliorate sensory overload or “meltdown”:
Autism Service Dogs for Children
Children diagnosed with autism can have a hard time communicating with the people around them, including their families. Autism service dogs can act as a social bridge, helping to alleviate the stress of social interaction.
University of Missouri research fellow Gretchen Carlisle explained this well in a 2014 study published in the Journal of Pediatric Nursing:
“Dogs can help children with autism by acting as a social lubricant…if the children with autism invite their peers to play with their dogs, then the dogs can serve as bridges that help the children with autism communicate with their peers.” — Gretch Carlisle, Journal of Pediatric Nursing
A child with autism may have a hard time speaking to others, but with a dog, they have a built-in topic of conversation, as well as a friend to turn to in challenging moments.
Autism service dogs also act as physical links for some children. Tethering, or connecting a child to their service dog by leash, is used to help prevent an autistic child from wandering off, and ground them in their environment.
There are mixed opinions on tethering, but many families find it an invaluable help as it allows them to go shopping, take a walk in the park, or go to a restaurant, simple family activities that may otherwise prove too challenging.
Autism Service Dogs for adults
For adults with autism, service dogs can be a vital bridge to independent living. Unfortunately, it can be difficult for autistic adults to be matched with a service dog because the vast majority of organizations training and supporting autism assistance dogs serve children and families. For adults, the path to finding a service dog may be a longer and more expensive process, but for most people, it’s worth the time and expense.
Many adult people with autism participate fully in their dogs’ training, which only strengthens the incredible bond between person and dog.
In the video below, an autistic woman named Rebecca demonstrates how her service dog Milo (who she trained herself with the help of a school in Portland, Maine) helps her live on her own:
Training a Service Dog for Autism
Autism service dogs are often those stalwarts of assistance: Labrador or golden retrievers. However, almost any intelligent, companionable dog can be trained as an autism service dog depending on the needs of the individual.
Some autistic people may be overwhelmed or even pained by loud noises or rough textures, important considerations when selecting a service dog. If a person has a sensitivity to noise, a dog with a tendency to bark would not be a good fit.
Similarly, if an autistic child has a touch sensitivity, a softer-coated dog like a poodle would be better than a wiry-haired terrier.
The most important characteristic for any service dog is that it be intelligent, trainable, and social, as service dogs are required to perform specific tasks in all different environments. Autism service dogs are not just pets; they’re working animals.
Autism service dogs start their careers like any service dog: they learn house-training and basic obedience, then move on to more complex skills like identifying obstacles, alerting to danger, and responding to specific commands. For dogs being trained to assist autistic children, it’s important that they learn to tolerate and enjoy being handled, as children will often interact with the dogs by leaning in close and tugging ears or tails.
The therapeutic benefits of a dog
If you’re a dog person, you already know how therapeutic a dog can be. Think of how calm and centered you feel when your pet leans into you at the end of a long day. Autism service dogs take companionship to the next level, providing life-changing physical, intellectual, and emotional support.
As one trainer explains, “A dog is completely nonjudgmental and unintimidating. It provides non-threatening, unconditional love.” For people with autism, assistance dogs may mean the difference between a life of isolation and a life of engagement.