Hey, and welcome back to Targets With Attitude. Hope you had a great weekend and that your kids made out like bandits on Halloween night. Well, it's another Monday and that means it's time for another ramble about Autism and Special Needs. One of the hotter items in the world of autism right now is service dogs, and right away I can hear some of you out there going "Service Dogs? But these children aren't blind!". True, most of us do think of Seeing Eye Dogs whenever we think about service dogs, but dogs can and are used for so much more now-a-days. In fact, there are even some dogs trained to help epileptics since some dogs seem to be able to sense when a seizure is coming and can help warn their person of that fact as well as help protect them while they are in the midst of one.
But we are talking about service dogs for autistic children like my son. A properly trained service dog can do so much for an autistic child that it can almost seem like a miracle. For one thing, dogs seem to act like what one researcher called a "social catalyst". People just seem to open up with dogs, and the same seems to be true for many people on the autism spectrum. For instance, when therapy dogs are used during sessions the children seem to be more talkative and socially engaged during the session plus some who tend to be overly aggressive seem to be less so when the dog is around. They also seem to some how encourage adults to be more open with the child in question as well. In another study done at Hospital Bohars in France, children on the autism spectrum who got either a dog or a cat after the age of five showed more improvement in both offering comfort to others and in sharing their belongings than their peers who did not. Now admittedly, the study was a rather small one and more studies with larger numbers of subjects will need to be done before the results can be proved, but it still gives us hope that there might be something there.
Another thing a properly trained service dog seems to be able to do is help these children bring their emotions and impulses under better control. As anyone who has ever seen an autistic child fly into a full blown meltdown over something only they know about, this can be a god send. Imagine sitting at the kitchen table discussing what to have for dinner or what to get Aunt Lisa for her birthday when all of a sudden you hear your son who has been sitting quietly playing at the computer suddenly start talking in an agitated voice and before you can even get up from the table, much less make into the other room to see what's wrong, he's suddenly running through the house screaming at the top of his lungs, babbling on about something that makes absolutely no sense whatsoever, and pounding on anything within reach, including himself. Believe me, as scary as it sounds it's even scarier in real life, and your fear isn't always just for your child. If there's an frail, elderly relative in the house or a younger, weaker sibling, you may fear that they may be unintentionally hurt as much as you fear for the safety of the child having the meltdown. Yet a well trained service dog can sometimes help head these sort of meltdowns off or at least help the child regain control much more quickly than they would otherwise. I've also heard stories from some families of how their service dog helps their children on the spectrum get to sleep with fewer hassles and problems; and once asleep, they seem to help the child stay asleep instead of waking up at odd hours of the night for no reason that anyone could figure out.
Finally, a well trained service dog can help safe guard a child on the spectrum. It's a sad fact that children with autism are more than 4 times more likely to wonder off than their neurotypical siblings. Why this is, no one is really sure yet. Sometimes it seems like the child is wandering to something that has caught their eye or imagination, other times they seem to be trying to get away from something that is causing them stress; but either way it can be a real danger since autistic children do not seem to understand danger as well as we, their families, could wish. If the child is small enough, and the service dog big enough, the two can be tethered together in such a way that the child cannot wander off without the dog actively going along with it. Plus, when the child is older, if he or she is used to being tethered to the dog then he/she won't even think of trying to pull the dog along because they "know" that the dog won't allow it. Plus, while children on the autism spectrum tend to be very trusting and innocent, dogs have been bred since time began to protect their owners so a parent's fear of someone kidnapping their naive child is greatly diminished.
Still, these dogs are not, and cannot be for everyone. Some cases are like my son's. You see Wills was hurt by an overly friendly and over active large puppy when he was only 3. Ever since then he has been absolutely terrified of dogs, and while he no longer runs from them even today he tries his best to make sure that I'm between him and any dog he might see. For another thing, the cost of training a service dog can be almost astronomical, and the dog is likely to need additional training every year over the course of his or her lifespan. Thus even if you have very good insurance indeed, it's possible you may not be able to afford one. And finally, the number of dogs that are of the right temperament to be a good service dog for an autistic child are limited. After all, you need a dog that's gentle enough that it will never hurt the child, intelligent enough to understand it's training, steady enough to deal with it's child suddenly going off in a bazaar way with no warning, patient enough to deal with a child that "just never learns", and loving enough to make that strange, unpredictable child it's own special human. Hell, it's hard enough just finding a human with those qualities; finding them in a dog can sometimes seem like a miracle. None the less, when the right dog can be matched up with a child that can really benefit from all that the service dog has to offer, it is one of the most touching things you've ever seen.
If you'd like to find out more about service dogs for special needs children, check out our links under the "more" tab above. In the meantime, thanks for stopping by my little corner of cyberspace and I hope to see again.