For many children with Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD), social interactions can be awkward and create anxiety. If the encounter is with a gentle golden retriever puppy with floppy ears and big paws, the awkwardness and anxiety can melt away. Research regarding the effects of companion animals on kids with autism is encouraging. A report featured on the Today Show cites a study published last year revealed that children with ASD are more likely to talk, laugh, make eye contact and show other positive social behaviors in the presence of guinea pigs than they were in the presence of toys. And in her 2010 paper “What a Dog Can Do: Children with Autism and Therapy Dogs in Social Interaction,”researcher Olga Solomon highlighted cases of dogs helping children to communicate and connect emotionally with others around them. Solomon noted in her paper, “dogs lead humans elsewhere, and this elsewhere is often better than where we have been before.”
Puppies and Therapy
The recent feature on the Today Show website highlighted Lionheart School, which serves students with autism in Alpharetta, Georgia.
Lionheart is home base for a new partnership with the paws4people foundation, which trains service dogs for war veterans, disabled kids and adults. Dubbed the “LionPaws Puppy Development Center,” the fledgling program sees to it that the future service dogs help as many people as possible throughout their training. The puppies spend the first four months of their lives at Lionheart, where they befriend the school’s 39 students. The kids hold the puppies, talk to the puppies, bathe the puppies and go on field trips with the puppies — all the while socializing the animals and preparing them for more advanced obedience training ahead.
According to Elizabeth Dulin, co-founder and head of the Lionheart School, “When our kids interact with the dogs, we see reduced anxiety levels. … They become calm and focused.” The students take their experience with the puppies with them. Dulin says that on trips to Target or visits with the elderly her students the children often will open up and make conversation with strangers about the puppies. Or when a student is having a bad day, a furry friend can help them regain a sense of normalcy.
Assistance Dogs and Autism
Another study from University College, Cork says that the presence of assistance dogs can help facilitate “normal” family functioning. Parents in the study say the dogs help prevent unsafe behavior like bolting, known as elopment, which is characteristic of ASD. The research, which has been published in the British Medical Journal, notes: “Assistance dogs complete a unique triad between parent/guardian and child. Typically, the child is attached to the dog via a lead (leash) and belt. The dog walks with the child but takes commands from the parent (handler). If the child tries to step off a footpath or attempts to bolt, the dog will use all his/her power to slow the child down.”
Four-Legged Friends at FOCUS
Four-legged friends have always been a part of the Programs at FOCUS. Splash visits the day program at FOCUS weekly. Splash is a therapy dog. What is really important is that Splash allows the children to come to him instead of approaching them first. Some of the kids at FOCUS are afraid of dogs. When they see others interacting with Splash, they then are usually able to interact on their own terms. At the very least, they do not see Splash as threatening. What is really valuable is the unconditional love Splash offers.
The Farmington Fire Department Dog, Hunter, visited with children in the Day Program. According to his handler and owner Deb Monde, Hunter’s greatest achievement was as a therapy dog. He took on that role after Monde took him out of active search and rescue duty in 2011. Hunter worked with kids with autism at the Focus Center for Autism. Each time he was there he “brought out something in those kids. I recall a child who was so scared of him,” Monde said. “By the end of the session they were sitting next to each other and Hunter had his head on their lap.” You can read more about Hunter. There’s a tribute to Hunter in the Hartford Courant.
Petals and Paws
FOCUS went to Petals and Paws in Canton last year. While there the children did more than look at the cute puppies. Lead teacher Erika Davis says they used the opportunity to promote social engagement and help the kids overcome anxieties. The children got to practice their reading skills by reading to the dogs. Davis says, “They were very motivated to read to the dogs and by the end of the session, each client took a turn reading aloud to a group of peers. There was a big boost in confidence that day for each child.” Therapy dogs provide opportunities for Social Learning.
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