Children with autism and their dogs
For a child with autism, the world can sometimes be a scary and complex place. Sensitivity to sounds and lights can make it incredibly hard to navigate the environment and lead to sensory overload, or they may feel required to communicate with others in ways they do not feel comfortable doing so, and daily tasks can become difficult to complete. However, with their pet dog by their side, all these things can become a bit easier.
Autism is a spectrum condition which can affect people in lots of different ways. It generally affects communication with other people and how individuals perceive their world, which in turn can lead to other mental health problems such as anxiety. Autistic children can often find it difficult in mainstream schools and they may struggle to form friendships with other children. When a child is diagnosed with autism, it is not just the child who is affected but their whole family. It can lead to a parent giving up their job in order to provide extra support for their child, or family outings being restricted to autism-friendly places.
It is commonly noted however that people with autism have a natural affinity towards animals, and a lot of parents report that their children are calmer when interacting with different species. Animals are generally a bit more black and white than people can be, as they don’t hide their feelings and are non-judgemental. This often means that autistic children can understand them better than they do people and they can be their true self around animals.
As a result, a lot of parents look at getting a pet to assist their child with autism. In 2010, the charity Dogs for Good was involved in various studies exploring the affects that bringing a dog into a family with an autistic child can produce. These studies, set up with the National Autistic Society and The University of Lincoln, found that once the dog was established at home, parents reported that their children were happier and that they were less likely to get upset and have a meltdown. The studies also investigated the affects that the dogs have on the parents as well. Before getting a dog, the average parental stress level was reported as ‘clinically high’. However, 40 weeks after bringing a dog home, their stress levels reduced to within ‘normal’ ranges. This drop was thought to be down to the dog giving parents an opportunity for time and space away from their normal routine and gives them something else to focus on.
From this, Dogs for Good started exploring the potential ways of helping families with autistic children introduce a pet dog into their home. The charity already had an existing Autism Assistance Dog Service, however these studies raised that not all families needed a fully accredited assistance dog and that a pet dog could often bring equal benefits.
Therefore in 2010 what is now known as the Family Dog Service developed. This service invites the parents and carers of children with autism to attend a series of three one-day workshops to explore the potential of bringing a pet dog into their life. Suitable for people who already have a dog or those deciding whether a dog is right for their family, the workshops start off exploring how to set up the home to suit a dog and how to get the children involved in meeting the basic needs of the dog, as well as choosing the right dog for their family if appropriate. It then goes on to explore how to build the relationship between the dogs and children, as well as explaining different tricks that the dogs can be taught to help the children in particular situations. Once they have completed the workshops, attendees are provided with continuous email and phone support from qualified instructors for as long as needed to assist them with any problems they may be having with their dog and child.
A lot of families have described this service as a lifeline and has given them the confidence and support needed to launch into getting a pet dog. There are so many different ways that the dogs help the families. For some children, simply having the dog present can have a magical affect. They can be the friend that they tell their secrets to or that sympathetic ear who listens to their problems without judgement. They can be the role model who supports them, showing them how to brush their teeth or having a bath and can turn difficult situations into fun games, such as motivating them to go outside in order to play a game of hide and seek. Often the presence of the dog can shift the whole family’s focus, with everything going from centring around ‘autism’ to being about the dog. It gives everyone something else to think about and the dog can help diffuse situations.
The dogs can also be taught to perform particular tasks to help out in specific situations. The service encourages parents to be creative in the ways they get the dog involved with their child, appreciating that no two situations are the same and that every family have their own needs. Some children with autism are particularly sensitive to touch and can find heavy pressure very calming. Therefore the dogs can be trained to apply this deep pressure with their head or body to help reduce anxiety and release stress. Other children may struggle with their daily routines and struggle to follow directions from their parents. In these situations we can teach the dogs to work with ‘Talking Buttons’ which can be the dogs way of speaking to the child.
These workshops are run all around the UK, with an average of 5 series being held in different locations every month. Currently there are spaces available in 2 locations in 2018 and booking has just gone live for 2019 covering over 20 different locations. If any trainer or behaviourist knows of any families who have a child with autism who either have a pet dog or thinking about getting one, then please direct them to our website for more information and to book on to our workshops – https://www.dogsforgood.org/how-we-help/family-dog/
Please note that this service is just for parents or carers with autistic children and we do not currently accept places for dog trainers or behaviourists. However if you would like to find out more or are interested in helping with the service then please do get in touch, as this is an area we are hoping to develop!