Assistance Dogs For Children With Autism Spectrum Disorder
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.
Video: Service Dog Assisting an Autistic Child at School
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?
A major problem with autistic children when out in public is their tendency to run off at any opportunity.
The child has hold of the dog’s lead but also there is a restraining lead attached to the child in the form of a waist belt. If the child decides to run off then the dog is trained to sit down and use its strength to restrain the child from running off. The parents feel more confident about the safety of their child while out in the streets.
There are no clear physical traits to define the child with autism. The children because of their autism often have tantrums in public. They are stressed and anxious because of the new surroundings and the overload of sensory noise and activity around them. To the people in the street or shops this is a child who needs discipline not a child with special needs.
An Assistance Dog is a clear message to strangers that this child has autism and has special needs. It allows the parent to concentrate on calming their child and not trying to avoid the disapproving stares of onlookers. In fact the opposite usually happens. Now people will approach the autistic child and parent and chat about the reason for the dog and the child’s condition. This can only be of benefit to this family and all families of autistic children as it explains the reason for the behaviour of the child.
A mother of a four year old Autistic Child tells how he has changed. '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 that they have an Assistance Dog her child will go anywhere without incident as he is very content to stay beside his dog quietly and calmly.
The reason he is calm is he feels safe with his dog, he is used to having it by his side. So now when he is out in unfamiliar and stressful situations he is able to 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. Therefore he is calm and in control.
Autistic children are safe when out in the streets as they are calmer and less likely to run off. The children are able to bring their Assistance Dogs along to school and can therefore concentrate better and this gives them a chance to retain more information and therefore increase their ability to learn.
They can be fretful and agitated in new situations but when they have their Assistance Dog with them they can cope better with this change. Most are reliant on medication to keep them calm, but with the arrival of the Assistance Dog in their lives the need for some of these drugs is reduced.
Benefits for the Family
The child's family would have been unable to carry out the normal functions of shopping, visits to hospitals, dentists etc without tantrums and stress. With the change in the behavior of the autistic child the family will have a calmer household and the parents can relax and give other children in the house some attention. They can have a degree of a normal family life.
Video: How Dogs Can Help Children With Autism
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 of providing one guide dog is €35,000. This is for the breeding, training and aftercare that is needed. The Irish Government only provides €7,000 of this amount. The remainder of €28,000 is provided by public donations.
International Guide Dog Federation
The Irish Guide Dogs for the Blind is a member of the International Guide Dog Federation and Assistance Dogs Europe. The Irish Guide Dogs for the Blind has announced in 2010 that due to Government cutbacks they will have to let down many autistic children and their families who are waiting for an assistance dog this year.
They need €1.5 million to train another forty dogs but have only received €150,000. Instead of the planned forty Assistance dogs for families that money will only allow four dogs to be trained this 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.
Support for the Program
The training of these dogs is very expensive but the benefits are enormous. It is time the Governments in each country was put under pressure to support the Assistance Dogs program with sufficient funding. That way each child that needs a dog to make their life better would have that chance as their right. There are links to support services for families of children with Autism and Aspergers Syndrome in the UK, America, Canada and Australia.
Assistance Dog Puppies
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.