The Autism Service Dog

WDOur guest post and this adorable photo both come courtesy from Wendy Drinkwater, a mother of two boys, one with Autism and one with PDD-NOS. Wendy was born in Kansas and raised in San Diego and Northern Virginia. She currently resides in Oakland, Maine with her husband Tom, her two sons Aiden and Cedric, her mother Lisa and their herd of five indoor cats and three Labrador Retrievers.  

Like all service dogs each Autism Service Dog has a unique skill set that varies from individual to individual based on its owner’s needs.  The Autism Service Dog may-

  • nudge a hand and prompt petting to interrupt self injury.
  • lay on his persons lap when over stimulated.
  • paw or step on its persons foot to warn of an impending anxiety attack.
  • bark to warn or alert its person to an alarm, a ringing phone or that another person is talking to them.
  • brace for stability and retrieve items.
  • search for lost items or people.
  • block or steer its person around obstacles to keep them from harm.
  • act as an anchor to keep their person from bolting.

Because many official definitions of “service dog” overstate the idea that a service dog is not a pet some people feel compelled to argue that a service dog cannot be a pet or companion dog at all, even after the job is done for the day.  What’s that old saying about not seeing the forest for the trees?  Due to the very close bond our species have developed over thousands of years of cohabitation it is unreasonable to expect a dog to work all day for a person and then be put away like a piece of equipment when he or she is no longer needed.  Dog’s need love and companionship just like we do and to neglect the emotional health of a dog is cruel and causes stress.  Stress causes all sorts of physical health issues and can also be the cause of a host of maladaptive behaviors that work against the dog’s utility as a service animal.

People in the Autism Spectrum can have a hard time computing emotions and can seem distant or disengaged from others on a social level.  A furry friend could change that for the better.  If all an Autism Service Dog does is retrieve items, alert to sounds and apply deep pressure their person is missing out on one of the biggest benefits of dog ownership.  These dogs need to be allowed to teach their people with Autism about compassion and help to identify their emotions.

My son Cedric can be distant, but with the love and insistence of a Labrador Retriever he blossomed emotionally.  His dog taught him to communicate his emotions, to give eye contact and to tolerate hugs.  Retrieving items and turning on light switches didn’t help much with the big breakthroughs in my son’s development.  Friendship, the kind that only a dog can offer and the trust that comes with it, was the catalyst to Cedric’s real emotional growth and is helping to build the foundation that everything else will rest upon.  Right now Cedric’s best friend is his service dog and because of that relationship we hope he will one day be able to have meaningful relationships with people too.  This will be essential if he plans on going to college, getting a job or starting a family.




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