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Column: Autism and dogs
Autism and Pez (W).jpg
Pez, a rescued family pet, visits at-risk children in school and homes. - photo by Andrea Walker

If you are a reader of this column, you might think of me as “the lady who helps dogs.” What you might not know is that while saving dogs is my passion, I also have a day job that equals my passion for saving dogs. I am an autism consultant and work with people affected by Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). ASD is a complex developmental disability that causes challenges with social skills, repetitive behaviors, speech and nonverbal communication. It is pervasive and affects all aspects of a person’s life. According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), autism affects an estimated 1 in 59 children born in the United States.

So, now you may be wondering why I am sharing this with you.

April is World Autism Awareness Month and the perfect time to share my knowledge about autism and recognize the key role dogs can play in helping people with the disorder. Dogs are trained as service animals for people with disabilities for a variety of reasons. They serve as eyes for the blind; assist people with mobility issues; provide comfort for victims of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and help reduce anxiety and improve socialization skills for those affected by autism.

Service dogs go through extensive training to help people with disabilities live more independently, and improve their quality of life.  Sometimes though, family dogs can serve a very valuable purpose outside of being just a much-loved pet. Dogs adopted at your local shelter or from a rescue can be trained in a variety of different ways to help a disabled adult or child navigate their way through what for them can sometimes seem like a very scary and confusing world.

Through my years of experience working with people with autism, I have seen and heard from many families about the remarkable difference pets have made for their family member. Dogs have helped to accomplish things that years of work with professionals have not been able to achieve. I have seen firsthand children that have very limited language talk more fluently to their dogs. Parents have shared stories about the strong bond their child has formed with a dog when the family didn’t think they would ever be capable of forming any meaningful bond.

People with autism have told me that they feel different from their peers, that they feel alone and alienated. When they got a dog, they felt immediate, unjudged acceptance. Over time, their friendship with their dog helped with social interactions, which are often challenging for people with autism and can prohibit them from building meaningful relationships with people. Their dog helped boost their confidence enough that they were able to initiate interactions with peers and understand the reciprocity of friendships.

In public settings, people approach to pet the dog and strike up a conversation, allowing the person with autism to feel less isolated socially. One important caveat -- all people with autism are different and sometimes dogs can serve as a trigger for a person with autism. In those cases, it may not be beneficial for the person or the dog for the dog to be in the home.

There has been much research done on dogs helping people with autism. For a long time, it was thought that only highly trained service and therapy dogs could help, but now we know that regular family dogs can have positive effects on autistic people. Dogs can help the whole family by having a calming presence, allowing them to de-stress. However, it is important to note that family pets are not considered to be professional service dogs and should never be portrayed as such.

As Autism Awareness Month comes to a close, it’s a good time to shine a light on this unique disorder, the numbers of people affected by autism, and the many ways the disability affects children and adults. It’s also a great time to remind ourselves that sometimes it’s not just about people helping dogs.

For the millions of people affected by autism and many other emotional and physical disorders, it’s also about the dogs that play a pivotal role in helping people.

(Andrea Walker is an autism consultant with the S.C. Department of Disabilities and Special Needs Autism Division, the founder of Fostering Foster Animal Rescue, and a contributing columnist to the Chronicle-Independent, Camden, S.C. For more information, connect with Fostering Foster on Facebook or at www.fosteringfoster.com and via email at fosteringfoster@yahoo.com.)