Autism service dog
An autism service dog is a service dog trained to assist a person with autism to help them gain independence and the ability to perform activities of daily living similar to anyone else. For the most part, these dogs are trained to perform tasks similar to those of service dogs for other sensory processing disorders.
Autism service dogs are trained to help their disabled handler live independently. Many autism service dogs are trained in guide work/obstacle avoidance (similar to a guide dog) to help the handler with visual stimuli, find specific locations to help with navigation, signal to sounds, and provide targeted deep pressure therapy. Any breed of dog can be a service dog. Many people on the autism spectrum have sensory issues that prevent them from having a traditional breed, such as a labrador retriever (due to the hair texture), so many autism service dogs are non-traditional breeds.
As with hearing dogs for the deaf, the dogs may be trained to alert their handler to important noises or other things requiring human intervention, such as smoke or a smoke alarm, a crying baby, a telephone ringing, or a knock at the door. For a person with autism, it may not be immediately obvious which of the many external stimuli is the urgent one requiring their immediate attention. A person with autism may have to sort through both major and minor stimuli—the sound of crickets, the smell of the fabric softener on their clothes, a car driving past outside—to determine which of these, if any, needs their attention. They may understand that a smoke alarm is urgent and requires them to exit the building, but it might take more time to realize the alarm is sounding in the first place.
How service dogs are trained to respond to certain behaviors:
|Self-stimulation||Will signal behavior to handler, handler may choose to stop|
|Self harming||Will interrupt behavior|
|Overstimulation/meltdown/shutdown||Deep pressure tasks: step on foot, paws on lap, lay on handler|
|Poor balance/motor control||Counterbalance, brace for stability|
|Disorientation||Find the car, go home, find other specified places|
|Auditory scene analysis||Alert to important sounds|
|Visual processing problems||Guide work - steer around obstacles|
In addition to the above responses, there are three major ways a service dog can help, especially with children:
- To help prevent the child from wandering or running away.
- To help with self-soothing during melt-downs. The tactile stimulation, whether by petting, hugging, or having the dog actually lie on the child, can help the child learn the skills of calming themselves.
- Socialization (including serving as a "social bridge", so as children and adults come over and ask about the dog, the child with autism is prompted to answer. The parent should not answer questions, but should refer all inquiries to the child. Thus with the dog, rather than having just the parent or teacher try to bring the child out of their own world, the entire community is talking to the child.)
A long-term study of service dogs and children with autism reported:
- “Highly significant increase in pro-social behavior with a parallel decrease in self-absorption."
- "Fewer autistic behaviors - examples include clicking noises, repetitive spinning or jumping or hand-posturing (stimming), and bolting or roaming."
- "More socially-appropriate behaviors (such as reaching up for hugs, frequently imitating the therapist's actions, joining or initiating games).”
Service dogs should never be tethered to a child. Even when an adult is "in control" of the child and the dog, either one can still be injured or killed since children are unpredictable, and even the best dog will break training at some point. Tethering is generally not accepted in the service dog community since it is abusive to both dog and child. An alternative to tethering is to teach the child to hold onto a handle made of an appealing material attached to the dog's harness.
Adults with Autism
Adults with autism can also benefit from a service dog. Unfortunately, most service dog programs only "train" dogs for children with autism, rather than training dogs for adults with autism. Because of this, most adults on the autism spectrum that need a service dog will have to train their own or hire a private trainer to train one.
- Guide dog
- Hearing dog
- Medical response dog
- Mobility assistance dog
- Psychiatric service dog
- Seizure dog
- Service Dog Central - Tasks for Autism Service Dogs Retrieved on January 28, 2008.
-  Redefer, L. A., & Goodman, J. F. (1989), Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 19(3), 461-467