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Companion Dogs for Autistic Kids

by Dixie Parnell

Autism and autism spectrum disorder (ASD) refer to neurological development disorders that vary greatly in severity and commonly affect communication, social interaction and exhibit repetitive behaviors. The occurrence of autism spectrum disorder has increased over 10 percent in recent years with approximately 1 in 88 children diagnosed, according to Autism Speaks, adapted from statistics from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. If your child has been diagnosed with autism or an autism spectrum disorder you may want to consider adding a companion or service dog to your family.

Sensory Disorder Assistance

Companion dogs have long been associated with sight-impaired individuals or those with limited mobility. More recently, specially trained dogs have been found to provide assistance to children with autism. According to the Project Chance website, autistic children having problems with "sensory overload" experience relief by having a companion dog close to them and providing a focus. These dogs can also be trained to use touch or apply pressure to halt repetitive behaviors commonly seen in children diagnosed with ASD.

Safety Concerns

Many children with autism have the tendency to wander away from their home or caregiver, if not constantly monitored, according to 4 Paws for Ability. With no fear of the dangers involved in their environs, these children may quickly become involved in unsafe and even life-threatening situations. With a companion dog, both the caregiver and child hold a leash and a tether is placed on the dog's collar with the other end being secured to the child's belt. In this manner, a child can safely navigate an outing. 4 Paws for Ability also trains all of their dogs in search and rescue. Should a child be successful in wandering from their home, the dog will track the child.

A Calming Effect

Most children with autism have trouble forming and maintaining relationships, but the unconditional love offered by a dog can provide calming comfort. According to 4 Paws for Ability, autistic children seem to form relationships with their dogs unlike any they have with humans. Companion dogs help autistic children improve their social interactions while becoming more interested in the world around them and lessening stress, according to Paws with a Cause. Even sleep was greatly improved when the dog was able to spend the night in the child's room.

Getting a Dog

Many different organizations can be contacted to request information about getting a companion or service dog for your autistic child. While some of the organizations require an upfront fee for the dog, others ask the family to assist in fundraising to procure the cost of the dog and training. The family must then be financially able to take care of the dog. Some organizations to contact include: 4 Paws for Ability, Paws with a Cause and Project Chance. An application for a dog must be made directly with the organization.

About the Author

An elementary educator for the past 18 years, Dixie Parnell has taught in both the public and private sectors. She earned a Bachelor of Science in elementary education from the University of Tennessee, Chattanooga and a Master of Arts in education from Nova Southeastern University, Fort Lauderdale, Fla. Prior to entering the teaching field, Parnell worked at Hamilton County Juvenile Court and served on the foster care review board.

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