Think about what we know about pets – there is research that shows pets can decrease stress and anxiety, increase physical activity and exercise, and even decrease feelings of isolation or loneliness. When you take your pet on a walk, it is common for strangers to talk to you about your pet, and even talk to your pet. This is social interaction that you might not have initiated otherwise. Children with ASD can benefit from these same qualities of having a pet. A study published last November in the Journal of Pediatric Nursing found that 94% of parents of children with ASD who had family dogs reported that their child with ASD had bonded with the dog. They went on to note that even children with ASD who did not have a family dog were generally attracted to and interacted positively with dogs. Other research indicates that children with ASD who grew up with a family pet from a young age showed greater social skills, and other research showed positive impacts of even short play time.
The benefits described above are from having a family pet, not a trained service dog. But there are also trained service animals that can assist those with ASD. Almost everyone is aware of “seeing eye dogs” – the highly trained dogs who assist individuals with severely impaired (or no) vision. Service animals assist individuals with a wide variety of challenges, including individuals with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). Service animals are trained based upon the specific needs of the individual with whom they will be placed. The animal’s skills can include opening and closing doors, preventing running, notifying someone when their handler is having a seizure, disrupting and redirecting behaviors.
Trained service animals can interrupt impending meltdowns, help calm a child, stop a child from wandering or running, help a child feel safe and not alone, and increase social interaction. But you don’t have to take my word for this. Read some of the success stories yourself:
Lewis helps Elliot relax and sleep more peacefully.
Jonny becomes more confident, talkative, and happy with Xena (warning, Xena was severely neglected before being rescued, and the pictures of her pre-rescue may be disturbing to some)
Animals can increase social behaviors even more than playing with toys.
Sox has changed Toby’s life, and gets an “Animal Hero Aware.”
As with all interventions and supports, trained service animals don’t always work out the way we would hope. According to one organization that trains service dogs for children with ASD, approximately 10% of their placements don’t work out for a variety of reasons. And while the stories above describe near miraculous changes in the children, they are individual examples (anecdotal evidence in research language). Each child is unique, each family is unique, and each service animal is unique. Results cannot be guaranteed, and it is a major investment. Training service dogs is a very expensive process ($25,000 and up), and most organizations require that recipients raise a substantial portion of that.
If after reading this you are considering a pet or a service animal, you can find a number of places to obtain pets, as well as trainers and support organizations by doing a web search. Then, research the organizations. Where do they get their animals? How is the training conducted? What can their animals be trained to do? Do they have experience placing service animals with children with ASD? What would be your responsibility in terms of costs and your own training? What happens if it turns out to not be a good match? Can they provide references? And don’t forget about the ongoing costs of owning and caring for an animal and the impact of those expenses on your budget.
A pet or service animal isn’t right for everyone, but can be a tremendous boost for some. Only you can decide if this is a good option for your family.
Russell J. Bonanno, M.Ed.
TAP Program Manager