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Service dogs help autistic children

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Service dogs can help autistic children in a variety of ways, including emotional bonding, socialization support, cognitive development, and physical safety. Consider this story: 

Casey Yankwitt is a six-year-old autistic boy from White Plains, N.Y., who needs one-on-one attention from teachers at school. The first chance he gets, however, he tries to run away. Last time it was to a water fountain, but everyone is nervous about where he'll head off to next time.

Canine Magic, based in Torrington, Conn., specializes in training dogs for young children with autism who have a spectrum of problems, including the urge to run away. Because of their disability, autistic children cannot understand the danger they're in until it is too late.

One of the dog's tasks is to anchor the child so he or she can't run away. The child is tethered to the dog on a four-foot leash, while the dog is held on another four-foot leash with a parent.

"We are hoping that if you start this with very young children, the impulse to run away will stop," said Lu Picard, founder of Canine Magic. "The dog acts as a buffer between the parent and child. When the child has a meltdown, the dog lays next to him, or on top of him."

What is autism?

Autism is a brain development disorder that impairs social interaction and communication, and causes restricted and repetitive behavior, all starting before a child is three years old. This complex developmental disability strikes about 1 in every 166 children, four times as many boys as girls.

Autistic children have difficulties with social interaction, problems with verbal and nonverbal communication, and repetitive behaviors or narrow, obsessive interests. The children seem to live within their own bubble, oblivious to others or the outside world. They often develop repetitious body movements and extreme sensitivities to sight, smell or taste.

Child's best friend 

In North America, it is estimated that about 200 families of children with autism have a service dog. Such service dogs need to have special temperaments and undergo intense training over a period of about 12 months. The typical cost of training such a dog is around $15,000 and the waiting list to obtain one could be as long as five years.

But families with an autistic child will do anything to help their child, and many launch intensive fundraising campaigns to help get a trained service dog as soon as possible.

4 Paws for Ability in Xenia, Ohio, is another autism assistance dog program, and has placed more than 100 dogs with autistic children. The magic that exists between dogs and children with autism is uncanny, said Karen Shirk, who founded the program 10 years ago.

"Every family who contacts us reports that their child has few, if any friends," Shirk said. "We have found the children in our program are able to relate to their dogs in ways that they were unable to with humans."

The organization's research indicates that children with autism seek their dog out for companionship, comfort, and confiding in ways never shown to family members.

The canine touch

The paradox of autistic children who might cringe at the touch of a human, yet enjoy the warmth of animals, was studied in Switzerland. The study concluded that autistic children "found enjoyment in tactile comfort with their pets," despite their strong dislike of being touched or hugged by people.

A dog can become an extension of oneself, often sensing when it can be of assistance -- unlike a human, who must be asked to help, and who can make someone feel like a burden. Autistic children, like countless others with disabilities, want to feel independent, and dogs help them.

The biggest benefit for these children seems to be a new-found confidence and self-esteem derived from their independence. So while history says that dogs need humans to survive, in this case, the reverse is true: Autistic children would be literally and emotionally lost without the love and companionship of their new best friend.

Credit: Reviewed by Amy I. Attas, V.M.D.
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