Assistance dogs (also known as service dogs) are dogs that are specifically trained to help individuals with various types of disability. In many countries assistance dogs have special access rights, to ensure their owners are not discriminated against.
Their use has now been extended to individuals on the autism spectrum.
Some assistance dogs (autism assistance dogs) are dogs that are specially trained to assist in the day to day life of the family with a child on the autism spectrum. It is important that the dog is recognised as a 'working dog'. Because of this the dog will work in a special harness that connects it to both the parent and the child.
The dogs are trained to lead from the front, acting on instructions from the parent, while the child is usually encouraged to walk alongside the dog using a lead attached to the dog. The child may also be in a harness.
The use of autism assistance dogs is based on the idea that the dogs offer greater independence to the child and parent. They ensure that the child is kept safe by preventing the child from running away. They also provide other benefits associated with dog ownership such as regular routines and social support.
Some people think that, in some circumstances, the dogs may also offer other benefits, such as encouraging the child to communicate and to be more sociable or enhancing the opportunities for the inclusion of the child and the family.
There is a limited amount of low-quality research evidence (three group studies and three single-case design studies with three or more participants) into the use of assistance dogs for children and young people on the autism spectrum. There is no research on the use of assistance dogs with adults on the autism spectrum.
This research suggests that assistance dogs may provide a few benefits to children and young people on the autism spectrum, and their parents and carers. Those benefits include increased safety, reduction of parental stress, an increased tolerance of dogs and greater opportunities for social inclusion.
However, because the quality of that research is so poor, we cannot determine whether assistance dogs provide any benefits to anyone on the autism spectrum, or their parents and carers. We must wait for further research of sufficiently high quality to be completed.
There is a need for small-scale research that uses quantitative methodologies (such as experimental trials) rather than qualitative methodologies (such as parental satisfaction surveys). That research should investigate whether assistance dogs are more or less effective than other interventions designed to provide the same benefits, and whether specific individuals are more likely to benefit from assistance dogs than other individuals. If this small-scale research demonstrates benefits, further, large-scale research may be justified.
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