Assistant dogs are specially trained animals who help their owners mitigate their disability. Probably the best example is a Guide Dog, who is trained to assist people who are sight impaired.
Like Guide dogs, Autism Assistance Dogs or Assisted Animal Therapy can be beneficial for some people on the autism spectrum by providing a calming, reassuring presence for people who may be prone to experiencing meltdowns, shutdowns, sensory issues, elopement or anxiety.
The benefits of assistance dogs in relation to meltdowns and shutdowns as well as helping with sleeping alone has been documented by a number of people who say, dogs provide a calming presence during a stressful time. And for those who are seeking sensory input, patting a dog can be a pleasurable and repetitive experience.
In addition to providing a calming presence, assistance dogs can be trained to help with children on the autism spectrum who are likely to abscond, or run away, by providing a sense of security, which makes the child less likely to run away. Autism assistance dogs have also been known to help track a child if they run away.
For Autistic adults, assistance dogs can help with communication, anxiety, becoming more independent, and developing a sense of responsibility. Dogs can also be trained to alert their owner to their own feelings of anxiety, allowing them to understand and recognise their emotions. Dogs can also help with navigating large crowds where becoming overstimulated and disorientated might be a risk, and can be trained to provide a block when standing in lines at the grocery store or just having a conversation with someone, to give the owner more space so that they feel less anxious. An Assistance dog may also provide an additional reason to go outside and exercise!
Getting an Assistance dog
There are two pathways to getting an Assistance dog for autism in Australia the first way is through companies such as mind dogs Mind Dog which requires you to have or obtain a dog prior to starting the program, this can be a rescue dog or a puppy from a breeder, although the dog must be of appropriate age and behaviour to start the training.
The second pathway is through a program such as the Centre for Service and Therapy Dogs Australia (CSTSA) which is a bit more supportive and takes longer due to the training process.
Autism Assistance dogs can help an autistic child and adult in a variety of different ways, but may not be the right choice for everyone. Dog training takes time and a significant amount of money which is currently not covered by the NDIS.
Luckily some of the research suggests that people on the autism spectrum may receive many of the benefits associated with an Assistance Dog by just having a pet dog – although you can’t take a pet dog on public transport or shopping.
A blog post written by Clara Sidoti, member of Aspect's Autistic Communications Working Group.