Assistance dogs found to help autistic children

Tim Robertson

6/06/2022 4:21:33 PM

A small study has shown specially trained dogs can help provide ‘a whole new world of freedom’ to autistic children and their families.

James King with his autism assistance dog, Winter.
James King with his autism assistance dog, Winter. (Image: University of South Australia)

For Chantel King, a Mt Gambier resident whose 13-year-old son James is autistic, the arrival of their black Labrador autism assistance dog, Winter cannot be underestimated.
While James was just a baby when the dog was assigned to the family in 2011, she says the impact on the whole family over the years has been ‘breathtaking’.
‘James was given a whole new world of freedom he never had access to before, thanks to Winter,’ she said
‘Over the past 10 years Winter has expanded James’ world in countless ways, including giving him the confidence to perform in an eisteddfod, graduate in front of his peers, travel interstate and venture into public places.
‘We were able to go on outings as a whole family, rather than being split up and someone having to stay home to watch James.
‘He has transformed our lives as a family.’
The King family’s experience is not unique, according to a new study recently published in the Health and Social Care journal, in which eight families were recruited through an Australian autism assistance dogs (AADs) program to participate in semi-structured in-depth interviews.
The research found that the presence of a specially trained therapy dog for autistic children provides families the confidence to venture further afield and to many more locations.
Their mobility in the community before and after the introduction of the dog was measured using occupational mapping, and on average, families visited 8.5 more places and travelled 20 kms further from their home after having the dog for more than a year.
Parents also reported greater freedom for severely autistic young children who were normally strapped in a pram when leaving home, as the AAD replaced the pram, but still acted as a natural restraint.
‘Impulsive and unpredictable behaviour is a feature of autism and taking children out of their usual environment is often too stressful for both child and parent,’ Dr Shelley Wright, a University of South Australia researcher and qualified occupational therapist who supervised the study said.
Parents reported their child was calmer and felt safer in the presence of the AAD, which helped prevent meltdowns when their child was feeling overwhelmed.
The study also found that the dog provided the children with much needed companionship.
‘In summary, many parents were not sure how they managed without the dog,’ Dr Wright said.
‘The parents we interviewed were much happier and more at ease leaving their home with their child after getting an autism assistance dog.
‘A new finding from this study was the sense of freedom and peace of mind stemming from the dog sleeping with the child, improving sleep for the family as a whole and alerting the parents when the [child] woke up and, in one case, was having a seizure,’ she said.
Dr James Best, Chair of RACGP Specific Interests Child and Young Person’s Health, said the study is ‘very positive’ and confirms what many GPs have been seeing in their practices.
‘I think it’s important that GPs are aware that these interventions are happening,’ he said. 
‘It’s important to be aware of the different modalities that can be used to overcome these impairments.
‘There’s a saying in the autism world that if you’ve seen one child with autism, then you’ve seen one child with autism.
‘Children experience social deficits, communication deficits and sensory issues and they come in all sorts of different forms. And the way those impairments can impact on the child can also vary. So, the way the dog can help also varies enormously and often in multiple ways.’
Dr Andrew Leech, a GP, educator and advisor with a special interest in paediatric and mental health, said exploring this kind of treatment is a ‘no-brainer’ and highlights the special role dogs play in many families.
‘Dogs allow the child to just sit in quiet, they allow children to talk to them, they don’t hold grudges, they provide comfort – physical and psychological – and act as a sounding board for children who might otherwise potentially struggle to express themselves,’ Dr Leech said.
‘It makes a lot of sense to open this up and, in an era where we’re seeing increasing rates of children being diagnosed with autism, as well as anxiety disorders, what would stop us from doing this?’
But while the research is promising, there are many factors for GPs to consider and, as with all treatment methods, these need to be assessed on a case-by-case basis, according to Dr Leech.
‘Some of the children I see have some fear and anxiety around animals,’ he said.
‘In these cases, the treatment may be longer-term; they may have access to an animal, but it may not be suitable to put an animal in their house fulltime.
‘But this might be the perfect fit for families living more rurally or remotely that might not have that social connection or the opportunity to see a psychologist. It might help parents who have trouble with getting their child to settle or sleep at night.’
The only frustration reported by parents was a lack of public understanding about access rights in relation to an assistance dog, with some places not understanding the law and refusing them entry.
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