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Myth #5: Autism Assistance Dog Placements have Nothing to do with John Q Public

by Patty Dobbs Gross

'North Star's Hero with his boy Joel at Disneyland.''North Star's Hero with his boy Joel at Disneyland.'

We should take a moment here to first review the various therapeutic roles that a dog can play in a child with autism’s life to help them to reach their social, emotional and educational goals, as only then can we envision the public’s important role in the child’s assistance dog placement.

A specially bred and trained dog can work as a therapeutic tool in the hands of a child with autism’s teacher or speech, occupational, or physical therapist; this dog can also act as a trained companion on the home front, or a vehicle custom made to deliver emotional support in a psychologist’s compassionate hands. You can have an autism assistance dog working with a child on the spectrum within the home with mom or dad or sibling(s), within the confines of a therapy room with a professional and perhaps classmates, or out in the public realm with a variety of trained handlers, which would allow the child/dog team access to schools, restaurants, stores, soccer games, on board airplanes, and, perhaps, if this team is very lucky, even access to you.

It should be noted that all these scenarios vary widely in services rendered as well as benefits accrued, and that the jury is still out on the best way to create and use an autism assistance dog, although it is at long last starting to shuffle in; we need to be cautious at this point because even though we can prove something scientifically, we cannot then say we know exactly why this evidenced based scientifically significant result exists. Autism is all about putting things in social context, including the concept of autism assistance dogs.

For instance, in the most recent study to break to the surface of our collective consciousness via the internet, French researchers recently discovered that the existence of a pet dog can help a child born on the autism spectrum to develop improved social behaviors:

Interestingly, more significant results were found when children aged five received a dog than if the children were born into a home with a preexisting pet dog. Although this finding has been forged in the fire of the scientific method, still, the researchers cannot claim to know exactly why this effect occurred, never mind discover why the effect occurred stronger when the pet dog was received by the child on the spectrum by age five. Here is where creating a flexible theory is important to do to guide our future research, for there is danger here of wasting time and precious funding on wild, vain or politically motivated goose chases.

If I were to hypothesize, based on my own experience with families of children with autism and autism assistance dogs, I would say best results of the dog’s entry into a child’s home at age five is significantly more effective because five is an age of social readiness for a child, whether they are on the spectrum or not, and that when a child with autism, in France, the United States (or Timbuktu!) ventures into public they are all too often ignored, stared at or whispered about, and seldom afforded the opportunity to meet others in their school, neighborhood or larger community face to face to experience the necessary social interactions we require to learn to speak pragmatic, or social, language in our respective societies.

Simply put, pragmatic language cannot develop in a vacuum. I found this out the hard way as a young mother shunned in her own Connecticut neighborhood over a quarter century ago when my son was first diagnosed with autism. I know that this same prejudice still exists today by virtue of my job at North Star, where I’ve heard from thousands of parents about their children and their own unique experiences with autism; these parents, so generous with their time and so patient with my efforts to understand and piece things together, are vitally important to the ongoing work of understanding autism and how to work with it, not necessarily cure it or make it speak. Autism has many voices, not all of them the typical spoken kind, and many shades of meaning depending on the hue of the glasses worn. To see autism clearly you need to first love a person on the spectrum, and perhaps this is true for any difference any child can have; without the context of love, true respect and acceptance cannot develop to help us to truly know any creature under the sun.

There is a trickle-down theory of education, where information gleaned by a doctoral dissertation can supposedly reach a family on Main Street by way of a newspaper, magazine, television program or conversation at the kitchen table, but I believe that there is also a grassroots component to education in our shared society, where anecdotes meet up with creative open minds to form educated theories. Anecdotes may contain many seeds of truth, but knowing which ones to plant and which to discard is tricky business: forming a hypothesis is really more an art than a science, but for those of us with children with autism, it is very important to do so; to not seek the available scientific information about this potentially valuable therapeutic tools to fashion a child with autism’s early intervention program can lead to wasted time, unnecessary expense, an increase in family tension and anxiety which can hurt the child.

You are very important here, as you, are you are greatly needed to help this child to reach his or her full social, emotional, and happiness potential. Supporting any autism assistance dog team you happen to run across in public is just one way you can do your part for children on the autism spectrum, and so if you spot an autism assistance dog team in public, I suggest you gather up your courage and say hello to a child that may not say hello back in the way you expect. Surprise yourself as well as this unique child’s parents by making the first move here; feel free to admire the dog that greets you so politely, whose vest will be the hunter green color of therapy with gold embroidered letters that read “Please Ask to Pet Me.” Stay long enough to also admire the child on the other end of the leash and all that he or she can offer you in your own life.

Lesson one is that despite what we all learned in middle school, it’s actually ok to be different…

Increasing the educational flow both up as well as down the ladder of academia, as well as stepping up communication between those typically developing and those with a difference, is as good for society as it is for the young newly diagnosed child with autism and their anxious parents. All of us need to know what to do next after this child is initially diagnosed, and it ends up that what we need to do is to work together to help our children on the spectrum to find their way to a happy and healthy adulthood as a fully accepted and respected member of our shared society.

The lesson you learn as you walk away from this special child and pup may be to accept and value your own differences, the ones you always felt you needed to hide. You can rest assured that this special child and pup will accept and respect you for who you truly are in a heartbeat…

Isn’t it about time we returned this favor?

  1. Autism
  2. Service animals
  3. social anthropology
  4. Social behavior
  5. therapy animals

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