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: Extra Benefits Autism: Financial Calculator
There's a saying you've probably heard many times: "If you've met a person with autism, then you've met one person with autism". This variation in symptoms, added to co-morbidity with other conditions, not to mention setbacks, make autism especially difficult for families. Caregivers can get depressed, both because the stress and sadness that can come with the situations that arise, and also because of fears for the future.
While it's hard to measure emotions or the toll they cause, scientists and economists have looked at the effects of autism on an individual economic level because money is one of the few things that can be measured. The process of how they determined a number, published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, is fascinating. They concluded that the estimated cost for a child with autism (even without an intellectual disability) to be $1,400,000 over their lifetime. That $1.4 million is the mean number, and if the child (who eventually grows up to be an adult) has an intellectual disability, the lifetime cost is almost double that amount. They break down the costs this way:
- "The largest cost components for children were special education services and parental productivity loss."
- "During adulthood, residential care or supportive living accommodation and individual productivity loss contributed the highest costs."
- "Medical costs were much higher for adults than for children."
It'a difficult to to comprehend those numbers (just as it's difficult to comprehend the pain that families go through), but the study at least gives an idea of how helping reduce symptoms can have significant long-term benefits.
Getting an Autism Service Dog
One peer-reviewed study about Autism Service Dogs 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
A Washington State University study 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, "Trained service dogs assist and also add pride, self-reliance, and personal satisfaction to an individual's daily life."
A new Université de Montreal study, "Effects of Service Dogs on Salivary Cortisol Secretion in Autistic Children" needs a bit of background to fully understand its conclusions: 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
Will my child bond with a Service Dog?
Note that bonding may not appear 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.
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 Pictures, Animals Make Us Human, Animals 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.
By popular demand, here is a flowchart to help in decision making. Note that this is our first draft of the flowchart, and each child (and each situation) is different, but we hope you find the following useful.
More of our pages about Autism Service Dogs:
September 2010 issue of the journal "Psychoneuroendocrinology", Université de Montreal, MIRA Foundation, Quebec, Canada.
Redefer, L. A., & Goodman, J. F. (1989), Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 19(3), 461-467.
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.
Observations on Assistance Dog Training and Use, Coppinger R, Coppinger L, Skillings E., Hampshire College, Amherst, MA.