Dogs helping children with ‘autistic spectrum disorders’ - Veterinary Practice
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Dogs helping children with ‘autistic spectrum disorders’

DICK LANE reports on a recent conference dealing with training therapy dogs for the families of children with autism

IN June, more than 350 people and their dogs gathered at a Heathrow conference centre for the first meeting ever held outside the USA for Assistance Dogs International (ADI). Blind persons with guide dogs were able to mix with deaf persons and wheelchair users as they all had the same interests in working dogs that are trained to help people with disabilities.

The conference extended over five days with participants from Japan, Korea, Australia and New Zealand as well as from many European and North American countries. It was greatly appreciated that dogs were able to fly into Heathrow as cabin passengers with their owners and there was not one criticism of the airlines nor the State Veterinary Service reception at the airport on arrival.

With so many dogs, special arrangements for their feeding and toileting had to be provided within the precinct of the Marriott Hotel.

Many papers were presented on training methods, access of persons with their dogs to public facilities and, of course, behaviour problems in dogs. People who were visually disadvantaged found they had many problems in common with the physically disabled who have to get around in wheelchairs.

One of the newest developments in assistance dog work is the use of dogs in therapy for children affected with disabilities in the group known as Autistic Spectrum Disorders (ASD) and this was specifically discussed at the conference. Work pioneered in Canada 10 years ago by Chris Fowler of National Service Dogs started when an autistic boy of four years of age was teamed up with the dog Shane; now over 150 dogs have been trained there to go into the homes of autistic children.

Rapid improvements

Dramatic improvements in behaviour have been seen within days of the dog’s arrival. Autistic children dislike being held tightly or restrained but have the tendency to “bolt” unpredictably, often running into a car park or roadway with no apparent fear of injury.

Disturbed sleep patterns are common, waking often at night: one child who had a trained dog escaped from the home at night, the dog went to wake up the parents and they found the boy was alone in the street outside. In the daytime the dog is attached to the child’s waistband by a “tether” about two foot long: if the child bolts the dog sits or stands still, allowing the parent to respond.

Some dogs block the escape route by standing in front of the child, say in an open doorway after a verbal command from the parent. Within days of receiving the dog, the child has a much calmer behaviour: as the dog is close to the child’s face it can reassure the over-active child who responds to imperceptible stimuli.

Being able to sleep through the night is one immediate benefit when the dog lies on the floor of the child’s bedroom, although a picture was shown of a child asleep with a Chocolate Labrador as his pillow!

No schools access in UK

In Canada about 60-70% of these dogs are able to go into schools with the children who each have an “educational assistant” already provided by the school who can then work with the dog beside the ASD child. Unfortunately, this access to schools has not yet been accepted in the UK.

In Ireland, the Guide Dogs for the Blind Association started training some of their dogs unsuited to guide work as dogs for families with one or more autistic children some four years ago and within the last two years the Banbury-based Dogs for the Disabled has commenced training dogs specifically for this task under the direction of Helen McCain.

Autism was rare in 1970 or at least hardly diagnosed; now there are 1.5 million people recognised in the USA, with an estimated cost of $4-5 million per person in their lifetime. It is yet to establish a cause of this increase that is similar to the British situation.

Causes sought

A hereditary tendency is possible; the condition is more common in twins but diagnosis is often not made until the second year of life after an apparently healthy baby has been brought up. Regrettably, the idea that MMR vaccination was a contributing factor led to children missing their normal childhood vaccinations and this has resulted in a measles epidemic this year in England.

Other causes of autism are sought and one of the most recent environmental theories is that pyrethroid insecticides used in the home cause autism (The Times, 15th May, 2008).

ASD was infrequently diagnosed in the UK with less than 1 in 10,000 but now it is believed to affect 1% of the population. Children look normal and the public often think they are just badly behaved, but this can make parents reluctant to go out into supermarkets for shopping.

With the child and a dog with a visible lead from the child’s waist, the parents can relax more – the child cannot bolt, there are no displays of “tantrums” and family meals out, visits to play areas and even going out just to buy the milk, again become possible.

The dog is free in the home but will often follow the child from room to room, perhaps because of the chance of a few crisps or other snacks being dropped on the floor.

The dogs seem to have a general calming influence on the child, a mental attachment develops quickly and there often becomes a less tense atmosphere in the whole family

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