Autism

Eight detailed pages on all the ways an Autism Service Dog from Pawsitivity can be used by the parents, caregivers, or handler.

Autism

For children with autism, there are many ways a Pawsitivity Service Dog can help. See these pages for details:

Autism     Autism: Empathy     Autism: Socialization     Autism: Soothing Melt-Downs     Autism: Educational Tool     Autism: Therapeutic Effects     Autism: AS-HFA     Autism: Extra Benefits

In addition to the above, what other benefits does a Pawsitivity Autism Service Dog help with?

Isolation

Having autism is difficult for both the individual and on his or her family. Usually children with autism struggle with routine social interactions, whether it is speaking to strangers, interacting with others, or simply having a reason to leave the house.  A service dog can help with feelings of isolation that sometimes occur as a result of the lack of social interaction. One way service dogs help with feelings of isolation is simply by virtue of their presence! People are usually incredibly curious about service dogs, and ask a lot of questions about them, which results in a dramatic increase in the amount of social interaction for the individual with the disability.These interactions dramatically reduce feelings of isolation.  In cases of Autism Service Dogs, sometimes the whole family benefits from this increase in social interaction with the general public. Not only are people curious about the service dog, but the dog's calming influence on the child with autism increases the number and variety of family outings. Moreover, simply meeting the service dog’s needs by walking and socializing the dog gets the handler out of the house and moving around the community. Often, having a service dog makes people feel more comfortable about approaching someone to talk who might have otherwise simply been perceived as “different” or “strange”. These casual interactions might even lead to friendships! 

Depression

Focus on the "here-and-now", keeping the handler in the momentEven children who have not been diagnosed with Major Depression Disorder can struggle with symptoms of depression because of the added difficulties that are the result of living with autism. Getting out and about with a service dog reduces isolation, increases exercise, and can really help with depression and anxiety. You can refer to our page on how service dogs assist individuals with depression for more information, but there are numerous benefits associated with having a service dog.  Not only can a service dog help the child meet other people, but the presence of the dog in one's life means companionship 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Some children with autism, for instance, may not have brothers and sisters to play with, so a service dog can fill the role of a friend who needs them; not just for food and walks, but for companionship, and someone with whom the child can share experiences.  

It's easy to inadvertently turn inward and focus on one's own problems, spending too much time thinking about negative things. Having a service dog can change this by shifting the focus of the child's attention outward. Service dogs provide external stimulation as well as constant affection that can serve to redirect the handler’s thoughts. This new outward focus can keep the child living in the moment and thus, happier in their day-to-day life.

Some studies on the positive effects:

According to a new Université de Montreal study, "Effects of Service Dogs on Salivary Cortisol Secretion in Autistic Children":[1]
  • A bit of background: Cortisol is the body's stress hormone, produced in anticipation of stressful situations. A body's level of cortisol typically peak a half an hour after waking, which is called "Cortisol Awakening Response". By measuring this Cortisol Awakening Response, scientists can directly determine how stressed someone is, without having to verbally ask them questions.

  • This study found that specifically-trained Autism Service Dogs can help reduce the anxiety and enhance the socialization skills of children with Autism Syndrome Disorders. 

  • "Our findings showed that the dogs had a clear impact on the children's stress hormone levels," says Sonia Lupien, senior researcher and a professor at the Université de Montréal Department of Psychiatry and Director of the Centre for Studies on Human Stress at Louis-H. Lafontaine Hospital. She continued, "I have not seen such a dramatic effect before."

  • Cortisol Awakening Response (CAR) levels before service dog: 58% increase.

  • Cortisol Awakening Response with the service dog: A mere 10% increase.

  • After service dog (when the dogs were taken away after four weeks): back up to a 48% increase every morning as the child awoke from sleep.

  • "The dogs also improved the children's behavior, reducing the number of problems reported by parents."

  • The authors proposed a number of hypotheses that could explain the changes in the Cortisol Awakening Response with the service dogs, including positive psychological factors associated with the presence of the service dog (e.g. calmer, happier children), or changes in the children’s sleep patterns (some parents reported improved sleep habits when the service dogs were in the home), or perhaps the presence of the service dogs created an anchoring effect that made testing cortisol levels easier on the children.

  • In summary, the article offers some of the first evidence that service dogs can benefit children with ASD by mitigating the physiological effects (Cortisol Awakening Response) commonly observed in the children and potentially lead to improved psychological states for adults and caretakers.

Another study studied the influence of service dogs on the behavior of children with autism, when the dogs were included as a component in therapy behavior. The study reported:

  • “Highly significant increase in pro-social behavior with a parallel decrease in self-absorption."

  • "Fewer autistic behaviors (e.g., hand-posturing, humming and clicking noises, spinning objects, repetitive jumping, roaming)."

  • "More socially appropriate ones (e.g., joining the therapist in simple games, initiating activities by giving the therapist balloons to blow up, balls to throw, reaching up for hugs, and frequently imitating the therapist's actions).”

  • Interestingly, at post-treatment and follow-up meetings when there was no service dog present, the children performed better than before the treatment, but this improvement in behavior declined as the time since the children’s interaction with the  dog increased

  • This early study offers evidence these dogs might complement existing therapy techniques – especially when the children are taught how to interact, communicate, and play with the dog.[2]

A Washington State University study[3] watched children with Autism Syndrome Disorders when in the presence the children of a service dog and found that the children:

  • "Were more focused."

  • "Were more aware of their social environments.”

  • "Exhibited a more playful mood."

As reported in a 2008 study[4], "Trained service dogs assist and also add pride, self-reliance, and personal satisfaction to an individual's daily life."

Is a Service Dog right for my child with autism?

I got to talk to my hero, the researcher Temple Grandin, when she was giving a talk in St. Paul, Minnesota in May 2013. When I asked her about Autism Service Dogs, she told me:

First of all, all kids with autism are all different from each other. There is no one-size-fits-all solution, and there is no cure-all. For instance, some children are afraid of dogs. Some children have a sensory processing disorder, for instance, and barking hurts their ears and they're afraid of dogs. But a trained autism service dog can be very helpful for the right child. Again, it's not a one-size-fits-all solution. The dog has to be specially selected and specially trained, but yes, an autism service dog can be really helpful for a child with autism

By the way, if you haven't read her new book, Temple Grandin not only wrote Thinking in PicturesAnimals Make Us HumanAnimals in Translation, and The Way I See It - A Personal Look at Autism and Asperger's, she just came out with a book in 2013, The Autistic Brain: Thinking Across the Spectrum, which is incredible.

Will my child bond with a Service Dog?

Yes, but perhaps not in the exact same ways as children who are not on the spectrum. Parents of children with autism sometimes worry that their child is not bonding with the service dog because they are not reacting to the dog like other children do. It is important to realize even before you get a service dog that children with autism use different body language with everyone, and thus will use different body language with their Service Dog, too. A child with autism might not smile, their posture may not convey interest or attention, and the child may not seem engaged, or may look bored, but that doesn't mean that the child is not interacting and benefiting from the dog. Rather than looking for a child's direct non-verbal behavior to assess their relationship to their service dog, the best practice is to look for reductions in symptoms. Many children with autism obsess less when they are with their service dog, use more verbal skills, or act more social, which has significant, positive effects on the quality of the children’s lives as well as their caretakers.

[1]September 2010 issue of the journal "Psychoneuroendocrinology", Université de Montreal, MIRA Foundation, Quebec, Canada.

[2]Redefer, L. A., & Goodman, J. F. (1989), Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 19(3), 461-467.

[3]Animal-assisted Therapy for Children with Pervasive Developmental Disorders, Martin, F., & Farnum, J. (2002). Western Journal of Nursing Research, 24(6), 657-670, College for Veterinary Medicine at Washington State University.

[4]Observations on Assistance Dog Training and Use, Coppinger R, Coppinger L, Skillings E., Hampshire College, Amherst, MA.