Saturday, August 22, 2009

Autism service dogs in public schools

I just came accross this article about parents battling school districts to allow autism service dogs in schools.

As the parent of an autistic child, I'm fascinated - I had no idea there were autism service dogs.

The article explaines:

"parents say calm their children, ease transitions and even keep the kids from running into traffic."

Another autistic 5-year-old's family:

"credits (the dog) with helping stop the boy from running off and keeping him from eating things like rocks"

Now, I realise that my daughter is "only" PDD-NOS and has never offered to eat a rock or run into traffic and so I have NO idea what it's like to live with a child with moderate to severe autism, but, using my own limited experience with the disorder, I'm having a hard time buying the Autism Service Dog thing.

I'm afraid I'm not grasping HOW, exactly, the dog helps.  From the ASDA (Autism Service Dogs of America) website comes this:

"Service dogs provide the child/adult challenged with autism an opportunity to safely access different environments which result in improved communication and social skills. The autism service dog’s presence offers a calming influence and provides a sense of security to the child and the parents. Abstract and concrete thinking advance, focus improves, and the length of attention span increases. Emotional outbursts occur less often. The important role of an autism service dog is affording the individual more independence and autonomy, helping those individuals become a viable part of the community at large"

There is no explaination of how the dog manages to advance my autistic child's thinking, improves her focus, her length of attention span, nor how the dog prevents emotional outbursts. Honestly, the whole paragraph smacks of "fad diet". Y'know: "You'll lose 30 lbs, feel calmer with more energy, your wrinkles will disappear and you'll look 10 years younger and sex will become fantastic!"

There also doesn't seem to be much on the qualifications of the people training these animals. Guide dogs for the blind are meticulously trained and the websites for Guide Dogs for the Blind and  Guide Dogs of America (just to grab two at random) boast long lists of veterinarians and licensed guide dog instructors.  I've raised and trained dogs my whole adult life and even a well-trained dog is still a pet, subject to being boisterous and disobedient every now and then.  Those guide dogs for the blind are focused.

I'm not prepared to totally pooh-pooh the autistic service dog thing, BTW.  I just need some proof that this 80lb golden retriever in my child's classroom is actually assisting her classmate - that said classmate would be severely hindered from learning without the animal - not that the dog is simply acting as an overgrown lovey or comfort object.

Many children are terrified of dogs, much less a huge breed like this, and many are severely allergic.  What of them?  If these dogs are not really helping the autistic child beyond being a comfort object then can we justify having them in the class where Johnny, who was badly bitten as a toddler, cannot even take his eyes off the dog much less concentrate on his schoolwork?

Can a 5-6-7 year old control a 60-80lb dog?  Nope.  None of the guide-dog-for-the-blind places will let a child under 16 even have a guide dog for that very reason.  So, could my daughter, who is a well-grown 5 year old, familiar with dogs, remember to remind her teacher that Goldie had to go out and poo? Could she walk Goldie out, unassited, and get her back in?  Does the teacher stop class and accompany her and her service dog outside?  Who watches the class?  Could my 5 year old clean up after Goldie who had just pooed in the school-yard?  Or would that onus fall on the teacher who had just had to stop her lesson and trot outside with my child and her dog?

The entire concept become more and more unworkable as I blog about it.

Should autistics be able to have assistance dogs? YES!  Should all disabled folks with assitance dogs be allowed to have their dogs accompany them everywhere, even school? YES?

BUT, mature, well-acclimated and instructed 16 + year olds.  NOT children, who shouldn't have to be responsible for large animals on their own. If you think it helps, then GET little Noah an autism service dog, but let it accompany him only when YOU are there to help him handle the dog.

Both your child and his dog are YOUR responsibility, IMHO. It is unfair to ask the teachers, school system, and classmates of Noah to help him deal with his autism service dog.  That is the job of Noah's parents.

What do YOU think, Gentle Readers?  Do you have any experience with guide dogs?  Do you think that assistance dogs could help autistics? How would you feel about a 5 year old in your child's kindergarten class with a large dog?

Interesting note: Both places listed above who provide guide dogs to the blind do so for FREE.  No money. ANY parent of a visually disabled 16 y/o and up can get one of these dogs, even the poorest of us. In contrast, an autism service dog from the ASDA will run you (brace yourself) $13,500.  Thirteen THOUSAND dollars.  Many many parents of autistic kids make about that in a YEAR. *raises hand*

Guess we're out of luck, huh?

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posted by MrsEvilGenius @ 7:13 am   17 comments


At 8:05 am, Blogger moonduster said...

Woah! Those are EXPENSIVE!!! I doubt my sister would be able to purchase one for her daughter, and my sister is pretty affluent.

Maybe they should add "for the elite" to the end of their title.

At 9:46 am, Blogger Art of the Firebird said...

Well said! The more I look at this, the more it looks like someone just came up with a creative way to extract more $$$ from the pockets of parents of autistic children.

At 10:39 am, Blogger Barb D said...

I have a friend who has nerve damage and panic attacks because of the nerve damage. She trained her own dog (a lab-terrier mix) to be her service dog.

It was A LOT of training and even more paper work getting the dog certified.

But, it was well worth it because the dog could sense when the panic attacks were coming on and help calm her -- even convince her to pull to the side of the rode if she was driving. I can easily see how a service dog would be worth it for an autistic child.

As far as the fear of dogs, service dogs are trained to not interact with other people -- unless trained otherwise to help their owner.

That said, I do think that service dogs are too expensive overall.

At 2:04 pm, Blogger MrsEvilGenius said...

Yeah, I confess the cost just left me gobsmacked, and Firebird, your thought wandered across my mind as well.

Barb, I have NO doubt that a very well trained dog could help an autistic child in a calming and comforting way - as a live "lovey". My autistic daughter, Bitty, finds a great deal of solace in her HUGE lovey collection.

But I still believe that a dog is impractical in the standard classroom. My kids' school has classes of 24 in K. We, as adults know not to attempt to interact w/ a service dog but a kindergartener would not understand this.

Our overworked and underpaid teachers would have to keep 23 small people from fawning over, fondeling, playing with, and being distracted by an animal that I don't feel performs a NESESSARY function.

Also, what of the autistic child? Many autistics get SUPER distressed when u mess with their stuff. Bitty freaks out if u move her fave lovey. How would the autistic child feel about having her classmates constantly trying to play with her dog?

Is this fair to them? Or just an unnesessary stressor? How would this impact the autistic child's learning?

And one can't just say: "well it's the teacher's job to keep order!" Anyone who says that needs to try doing it for ONE day! With a classfull of NT kids!

At 2:20 pm, Blogger Barb D said...

As a teacher, I do agree that kindergarten (and most elementary grades) would be most difficult with a service dog.

However, I also think a slightly older autistic student (though much younger than 16) would do well with a service dog... say 10-12 perhaps. I think parents should be able to decide based on not only their child but also the age/maturity of the classmates AND how willing they are to get involved to help the class adjust to the child's service dog.

Also, though goldens are most often used for service dogs, smaller dogs can and are used -- such as standard and medium Labradoodles.

At 7:15 pm, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think that the article you read, like most media accounts, failed to mention that both parents received training in handling their son's service dog and that the mother will be accompanying the child to school.

Service dogs cost anywhere from 8-20,000 to train depending on the level of skill required. They are not covered by insurance. Some programs rely on donations and fundraising and provide their dogs for free or minimal cost. Some charge full cost.

Some people choose to train their dogs themselves if they are qualified or hire professional trainers to help them. Like a disruptive person, an ill behaved service dog can be legally ejected. That's the public's protection. If using a service dog can enable this child to learn, reduce his disruptive behavior and increase his safety and is supervised by the child's mother, I think everything's been done to maximize the chances for this being successful.

BTW, the Dept. of Justice ADA regulations do not require certification for a service dog and there is no entity with the authority to certify for any government entity.

Cissy (service dog user and advocate)

At 5:43 am, Blogger MrsEvilGenius said...

Barb, I would feel MUCH more comfy with the concept of an older child (10-12) having a dog in the classroom. They are more mature and larger physically, to be able to control the dog, plus the older classsmates would (presumably, lol) have better slef control.

The organisation that I looked at had only large dogs (labs/goldens).

At 6:21 am, Blogger MrsEvilGenius said...

Cissy, thank you SO much for chiming in! :D

The autistic child's parent accompanies him to school all day, every day? If that is true, then that makes a huge difference!

That also spurs another question: Surely the autistic child's primary caregiver is the very best tool for maximising attention, defusing disruptive behaviour, and ensuring safety? This seems to make the dog redundant; even LESS necessary.

I'm really troubled that service dogs are not required to be certified!

Thank you again for your comments and the fresh info! :)

At 7:13 am, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hey Blue!
I don't post about my son very often, but I felt I had to respond to this.
Yes, there are people who will happily take advantage of desperate parents and swindle every penny from them, and yes, as parents we do need to be vigilant. But that said, I disagree with you here.
My son, as you know, has Autism. I have killed myself for years to get him to the point of being high functioning.
At his school, one of the special ed teachers has a therapy dog, a big relaxed chocolate lab. I have seen, over the years, children in the special ed class who lacked the social skills to make friends, be able to emotionally relate to the therapy dog, and with the teachers aid be able transfer those skills to the other kids in the class.
Last fall I got a therapy dog for my own son. He's a toy poodle and a rescue dog. My son is anti-social and pan-phobic, and panics when he meets new people, but I noticed that he is less fearful of people when they have a dog. In fact the only time he would ever go up to people to talk to them would be when he would ask if he could pat their dog.
So I got this dog to help him engage more positively in social interactions. The first month we had him, my anti-social, pan-phobic son would walk up to the people in town, look them in the eye and say in a bright happy voice, "This is my new dog, his name is Toby! Would you like to pat him?" Now if you don't have a child with Autism, this may seem like no big deal. However, this was the first time in his life my son had been able to do this. I keep the dog when my son is at school, but I bring Toby with me into the class when I drop my son off and when I pick him up. The other kids in the school are beginning to get to know my son now because they all come up to pat the dog. My son also feels more empowered in his life, having someone to be responsible for and the fact that he knows he can be responsible for Toby help give him more confidence in controlling his Autism and therefore helps him stay calm. Toby dog is also very fond of playing with other dogs and making friends with them. As a result, my son insists that Toby get to play with whatever dogs we meet because as he says "Mom, I want Toby to have friends!". I've asked him what he thinks of having friends and he says "It's good." This from a boy who used to say he didn't like the whole idea of having friends and didn't want any.
My son also has epilepsy, and when a seizure is imminent, Toby Dog sticks to him like glue, lays right up against him while he has convulsions, and stays protectively beside him afterwards for hours. It's a huge comfort to my son to know that his dog will keep him safe when he has a seizure.
I am looking into further ways to train Toby to be of more help to my son, but already he has helped improve his quality of life.
Hugs to your bubs,

At 8:40 pm, Anonymous Anonymous said...

With regard to a parent accompanying the child and dog to school, it is my understanding that this is the case. This is the way it usually works for kids who can't supervise their dogs on their own. I certainly hope my information is correct; otherwise I don't see how this can work for anyone.

If it were true that the primary caregiver is the best resource, then you're right; the parent should accompany the child to school and a dog would be redundant. By the same token, I don't think we're in a position to substitute our judgment for the parents' - who have reported remarkable positive changes in their son and the functioning of the family unit as a result of his service dog.

My assumption is that part of the goal is for the child to become all he can be - which includes as much independence as he is capable of. A service dog is something this child can use for his entire life, and as he grows a dog will be able to be trained to continue to meet his needs.

Certification has been a contentious issue since the DOJ wrote the implementing regulations. Aside from my own personal life experiences that certification and/licensing means nothing with regard to competence, the question has always been "certified for what by whom". When you think of all of the disabilities service dogs are used for this becomes more complicated than changing the health care system. Add to that the different jurisdictional laws covering both the definition of disability with regard to civil rights laws and the differences in service dog laws, it's quite a mess.

I hope I answered your questions. But please feel free to keep them coming. And you might want to check out the site for the "North Star Foundation". Patty was the first to use a service dog for autism and she trained the dog herself for her son. I can't even begin to tell you the kind of crap she had to put up with from the "traditional" service dog community. But when you have an autistic child (I don't) it seems to be a struggle to get others to focus on what's possible, not the limitations.


At 1:22 pm, Blogger hcgoodman said...

Dear TM,

Never posted hear before, but I have to say I think you're way off the mark on this one.

First, under IDEA, service dogs have the right to be in any public space, including a school. Also under IDEA the child is garunteed the right to a free and appropriate education, if the dog helps facilitate this it is not the legal right of the school to deny. Becuase they are registered service dogs, they need not even be included in an IEP.

Second, dog allergies? Schools deal all the time with all types of allergies, and lethal ones. There are ways to make it work for everyone, like keeping alleric kids and dogs in seperate classes. And dog fear? Little Jimmy's phobia does not trump another kid's right to a service dog. Time for little Jimmy's parents to find him a good therapist and work through the dog thing. Becuase, that's exactly what the parents of the kid with autism are doing, investing thousands out of pocket on an array of therapies to help their kid better cope in the world.

Cost? Could a family pet have the same theraputic benifits. Maybe. Probably. But that pet would not have the same access and rights as a service dog, which is crucial for some kids. Also, this org and others like it encourage families to raise the money and provide assistance setting up the campaigns. They discourage families from paying out of pocket, even those who CAN afford to just cut a check.

Where's the proof? Reseearch is on going, problem is we can't answer the WHY in why does this work. But anicdotal eveidence says it absolutely does. So, for me, who cares why? We know the relationships between dogs and the kids are effective and healing and life changing. We also don't know why dogs can detect and in some cases prevent siezures in people with epilspy, but no denying they can and do. Problem here is we get stuck on wanting something tangible. So we go back to service dogs for the blind - becuase we can SEE what there doing. It's easy to identify. Culturaly we have no problem ackowleging the benifits of treatment for physical impaiment.

Your argument here is: providing comfort may not be a valid enough function of a service dog. If the child's impairment is that he/she is uncomfortable in the world or with other humans becuase of sensory dysfunction (often the case) and the dog provides enough comfort to breakdown those barriers, then isn't the dog EXACTLY what's needed. You'd never tell someone with bad vision they shouldn't have glassees just becuase the glasses help them see...

You chould check out writer Monica Holloway's memior Cowboy & Wills. The story of her son (who has high functioning autism) and his dog - a Golden Retriver, who was not a service dog but had a profound life changing effect on Wills. And, just becuase Wills did not net a certified dog with him everywhere, does not mean other kids don't either. What's stunning about this story is the effect Cowboy had on Wills in NOT unique.

The key, I think, is to let go of any attachment to scientifically knowing this works. Scientific proof often lags behind what we understand.

At 12:43 am, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I ran across this website on google. I'm going to start by saying that my son is 4 years old and severely autistic. We recently got him a service dog. Yes they are expensive ours was $16,000. BUT if that saved your child's life can you really put a price on that? My son loves to try and put rocks in his mouth, he also darts for the road if you let go of his hand even for a second, and he would never stand in a group of people. The dog will redirect him from the rocks, it also knows if he is headed to the road to lay down and not let him go, and he is getting better with groups of people. His dog also knows when he is about to have a meltdown and can prevent them a lot of the time by putting deep pressure in his lap with her head. It is almost like another set of eyes to help us out especially when in public. He will start Kindergarten next year and the school thinks it is a wonderful idea to bring the dog. He will have an adult aid with him to help him handle the dog at all times. And the best part is it doesn't matter where he is his friend will always be there for him! :)

At 10:24 am, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm a grandmother who has custody of 10 yr old grandson with seizures and autistism and would love a dog for him but some people just don't have the money I'm sure without a doubt that the dog is worth every penny but some just can't do it and I one of those people. My grandson has no friends and no one to play with and I know a dog would be great

At 11:56 pm, Blogger Chelsea Budde said...

I have an autism assistance dog with search and rescue skills for my two children, both of whom have ASD. While we brought our dog home (after raising $13K in tax-deductible donations for the charitable organization that trains the dogs) more than five years ago to work with both kids, then 3 and 6, now the dog is certified for public work only for my 11-year-old.

As you know, disorders of the neuro-biological system are very complex. So, in some ways, are the working relationships between individuals with ASD and their dogs. Deep pressure, behavior disruption, tracking (search & rescue in case of elopement), anxiety reduction, and social bridging are all very real benefits.

Still, I am sympathetic to the special needs (allergies, pathological fear) of others as well. And certainly, my son, while physically capable, could absolutely not handle his service dog on his own. So I am working with the school to develop a plan, which will include me handling his dog for him.

Relationships are few for individuals with ASD. Helping them cultivate one with an animal that loves unconditionally and is relatively unchanged by dynamic environments holds great promise for today and for their future independence.

At 5:08 pm, Blogger Christine said...

Ouch! As a mother of a child with both cancer and autism, reading the word "autistics" really hurst. I do not define my son either by his disease, or by his disability. in describing my son, I say "he has autism" just as I say "he has cancer", because these words only tell a part of his story.

Service dogs? My son has a service dog from Canine companions for Independence, a highly trained dog offered free of charge, who helps my son with mobility, supports him during medical treatments, and provides support and motivation during all his therapies. It's been life changing. We are now working with the school to figure out the role of the dog at school.

At 2:43 pm, Blogger Mike said...

Great! - Schools full of "service dogs"

Just one more distraction.

While I empathize with parents of "special needs" children, I can't help but wonder why they think other people should pay the costs associated with the special care.

At 7:16 pm, Anonymous Anonymous said...

As the parent of a child with autism i can see both sides of this matter. I am also trying to work with her school to provide a handler for her service dog. my daughter can be very violent at some times and has hurt other children. Since getting a service dog for my daughter we have seen improvements already and it has only been a month, she has been more easily calmed when she tantrums but we have also seen fewer outbursts at home and in public. If there is a way to keep her calmer in school that also helps keep the other students in her class safer, this is a win win for everyone involved. As far as the issue of allergies and fears goes i am sympathetic to those kids as well but my child deserves an education as well. There are no children with allergies in her class and all the other kids she is with love the dog. There are very good points to both sides but if you have an autistic child and you have tried everything else to help them be part of society why not let us give this a try? I no longer have the autistic kid that hits people now i have "hey there's....and her dog yoyo thats cool" every parents dream is to have your child accepted right?


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