Children With Autism Spectrum Disorder and Assistance Dogs
Service Dogs for Children with Autism
Many countries, including America, Canada, UK, and Australia have organisations that train and provide assistance dogs for children with autism. In this article, I will focus on service dogs in Ireland, discussing their benefits for children with autism, who qualifies for an assistance dog, and how much it costs to train them.
Assistance Dogs for Children in Ireland
Although support is growing for families in Ireland with children with autism or Asperger's syndrome, more support is still needed. There are many programmes raising awareness and funds, but the waiting list for these assistance dogs continues to grow rapidly.
In 2004, Irish Guide Dogs for the Blind started a pilot programme in which eight families with autistic children were given specially trained dogs for a year. These dogs were trained to the same standard as dogs for the blind. Seeing the remarkable improvement in the lives of the children and their families, the organisation decided to create a new branch of assistance dogs for autistic children.
In 2006, Irish Guide Dogs for the Blind announced the launch of a programme to assist children with autism and their families: Assistance Dogs for Families of Children With Autism.
What Are the Qualifications to Get an Assistance Dog?
The autistic child is accepted on the programme as long as they are less than eight years old. Extensive training is also given to the parents. When out both the parent and the autistic child have a lead on the dog. The dog is trained to respond to both the autistic child and the parent.
What Are the Benefits of Having an Assistance Dog?
They Provide Companionship and Inspire Confidence
In public—especially in new surroundings or crowded places—an autistic child can easily be overwhelmed and stressed by all the activity around them. An assistance dog can act as the child's companion and guardian, calming the child and boosting their confidence. I've had a mother of a 4-year-old autistic child tell how he has changed since he was paired with an assistance dog. "He would sit and scream and have a tantrum. He looks adorable, and people could never understand. I was forever being reprimanded for my naughty and out-of-control child. It was really stressful for both of us."
Now, her child can go anywhere without incident as he is very content to stay beside his dog quietly and calmly. He is calm because he feels safe with his dog; he is used to having it by his side. So when he is out in unfamiliar and stressful situations, he can stay close to his dog and feel safe with the one constant in his life. The rest of the noise and activity around him is blocked out. Another example of where this might be beneficial is in school. The calming effect can allow the child to better concentrate on their schoolwork.
Of course, having an assistance dog is not a substitute for medication. But in some instances, they can greatly reduce the need or reliance on anti-anxiety medication.
They Act as the Child's Guardian
Aside from providing companionship, assistance dogs can help autistic children by watching over them. One of the most common problems parents of autistic children run into is having to react quickly when their child suddenly runs off. With an assistance dog, the child has hold of the dog's lead, but the dog also has hold of the child's "lead." The dog can be trained to sit down when the child runs off, using its weight and strength to restrain the child. This removes some of the pressure and worry from parents who are afraid they may not react quickly enough when their child runs into danger.
They Signal to Strangers of the Child's Special Circumstance
Another less-obvious benefit is that it sends a clear sign to strangers that the child may not behave according to societal norms. The occasional outbursts and tantrums can draw the disapproving stares of onlookers. Having an assistance dog allows the parent to concentrate on calming their child rather than trying to explain to strangers why their child is behaving the way they are. In fact, the opposite usually happens. People will often approach the autistic child and parent and chat about the reason for the dog and the child’s condition.
More About Irish Guide Dogs for the Blind
Irish Guide Dogs for the Blind was founded in 1976. It provides its services free of charge. The cost for providing one guide dog is €35,000, which covers the breeding, training and aftercare that is needed. The Irish Government only provides €7,000 of this amount. The remainder, €28,000, is provided by public donations.
International Guide Dog Federation
The Irish Guide Dogs for the Blind is a member of both the International Guide Dog Federation and Assistance Dogs Europe. The Irish Guide Dogs for the Blind announced in 2010 that due to government cutbacks, they will have to decline many autistic children and their families who were waiting for an assistance dog that year.
They needed €1.5 million to train another forty dogs but had only received €150,000. Instead, only four dogs could be trained that year. Since the Service Dogs for Autistic Children came into being in 2006, one hundred autistic children have received dogs. Unfortunately, there are well over another hundred families on the waiting list.
How You Can Help
The training of these dogs is very expensive, but the benefits are enormous and keep on giving. It is time for people around the world to put pressure on their governments provide more funding for these programs. That way, each child that needs a dog to make their life better can have that chance—as is their right. There are links to support services for families of children with autism and Asperger's syndrome:
- In the UK: Support Dogs—For Autism, For Epilepsy, For Disability
- In the US: 4 Paws for Ability
- In Canada: Autism Canada
- In Australia: Assistance Dogs Australia
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.