How Service Dogs Can Help Autistic Children
Remember Mary and her lamb? The one that followed her to school one day, which was against the rules?
The school year in Illinois is starting out with some drama.
Two elementary schools attempted to block autistic students from attending classes with their service dogs. The children and their families are being challenged on the basis that assistance dogs for autism don't qualify as true service animals and that other students who either fear dogs or are allergic should not be exposed to dogs in school.
The contention of the school systems is one that has been made before, that autism dogs are there for comfort and companionship rather than to perform actual “service” tasks. It is a difficult differentiation to make, not the least because autism itself is difficult to define and, unlike blindness or paralysis, has infinite variables of symptoms. It is a fairly recent development for autism to be recognized as a sensory processing disorder -- placing it in the same category as blindness and deafness -- rather than a mental illness and the differentiation is still sinking in for the public. It is one thing to be acquainted with facts or data, but another entirely to understand the actuality; that often takes time and controversy to clarify the issues.
Autism poses other difficulties when defining the parameters of what is a service dog and what is a companion because autism itself defies strict definitions. Each case can have different manifestations, subtle or even seemingly unrelated to even the loosest definitions and comparisons. Autism can be as unique as each person who has it.
Struggling to prioritize sensory data or even realizing that it needs to be prioritized -- something that most of us take for granted -- is an area that service dogs can be trained to assist those with autism to sort out. Consider the sheer amount of sensory information we are deluged with at any moment of the day. Most of us filter the majority of it out and shunt it to the background without conscious thought. Stop and imagine your brain requires you to separate each segment of data separately and handle it one at a time, taking turns, like children waiting in line for the bathroom. The child who really, really has to go isn't likely to get to cut to the front of the line, no matter what the potential consequences; the autistic child who is processing information one piece at a time may not let the data being supplied by the sound of a smoke alarm “jump line” ahead of all the other stuff lined up, but a trained service dog will.
In a school situation, a service dog that can calm or redirect a child panicked or confused by overstimulation and sensory overload ought to be considered a true asset to the classroom or playground. One practice that some service organizations frown on, tethering the service dog to the child, is used to keep panicky or impetuous children with autism from bolting out into traffic or running away. If the service dog is calming the child or restricting him from running off, the teacher is still able to give the other children the attention they need as well, rather than having to focus on one child.
We are still, realistically, in the early stages of beginning to build a foundation for understanding autism and how people living with it can be helped, short and long term, by service animals. We may find that teaming children and service dogs at a relatively early age can help their brains learn to re-route, differentiate, sort or process more independently and effectively as they grow and develop.
Hopefully, learning more about autism and how these assistance dogs truly do assist people, adults and children both, to move through the world and react on their own terms -- to live more fully and joyfully will create more acceptance. And, while we're learning, hopefully the courts will continue to consider the needs of the disabled and their service dogs and uphold the Americans with Disabilities Act in these and other cases.
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