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Assistance Dogs and Autism Ranking: Insufficient/Mixed evidence

Aims and Claims

Aims

According to Irish Guide Dogs for the Blind website, accessed on 12 June 2015,
 
“The primary function of the assistance dog is to provide safety to a child with autism and their family. Due to the high level of obedience and training that an assistance dog receives, they are trained to stand when they feel a strain on the attachment from the child to the dog. This in turn will hold the child in place for a few moments allowing the parent time to deal with the situation and not have their child in any immediate danger. The child cannot get any further than the length of the attachment lead, thus increasing the safety for the child and reducing the stress levels for the parent/guardian. The dog is like a moving anchor and a source of security for both parent and child.”
 
Some people think that assistance dogs can also be trained to help with other problems, such as difficulties with temperament, social communication and social interaction. They also think that the dogs can be used to teach responsibility and commitment, as well as problem-solving skills. It is also suggested that dogs can be used to teach the individual to overcome a fear of dogs and other animals.
 
There are different explanations as to why assistance dogs may help some people on the autism spectrum. However, it is likely that the reasons may vary from one family to another. Possible reasons for any benefits include:
  • The dog acts as a psychological and physical anchor, helping to reduce the risk of the child running off.
  • The dog offers companionship, social support and uncritical acceptance.
  • The dog may act as a means of facilitating social communication - a social 'bridge'.
  • Dogs may be more tolerant, so the person feels less anxious or pressurised.
  • Dogs are interesting and the child may be instinctively drawn to them.
  • The child learns a range of skills from interacting with the dog which can be transferred to other situations.

Claims

There have been various claims made for the use of assistance dogs for people on the autism spectrum. For example, Irish Guide Dogs for the Blind claim that assistance dogs “help to control and improve the behaviour of a child with autism by promoting calmness and acting as a safety aid to the parents”.
 
Other organisations have made additional claims. For example, the Autism Assistance Dogs Ireland website, accessed on 29 June 2018, claimed that an assistance dog can
  • “Distract a child who becomes distressed by nose nudging and pawing so that the child does not hurt them self or others, and so learns to use the dog as a coping mechanism
  • Eases difficult transitions to places that would normally be anxiety provoking, such as the supermarket, school, any place outside the child's home
  • Holds position in dangerous situations so that the child cannot bolt. The child is attached to the dog via a belt which is then linked to the dog’s jacket. The parent then takes control of the dog by the lead to ensure that the child who is at risk of bolting, remains in a safe place, e.g. can no longer run out into oncoming traffic
  • Can improve a child's communication and concentration skills as they are no longer highly anxious and distraught, and so the child can focus on their surroundings, process and learn
  • Provides pressure contact and comfort to child who needs tactile support in stressful situations
  • Helps to locate a child who might have disappeared, is nonverbal and cannot respond to their own name
  • 'Meltdowns' reduce as the child now feels safe and has a constant companion
  • Enables family to bring their child out and do normal, everyday things, with full public access. Families no longer live in isolation and avoidance of places that once caused their child such distress
  • Educates society, helping people to understand that this wonderful child has a disability and needs our support and not our criticism."
Updated
31 Jan 2019
Last Review
01 Jan 2019
Next Review
01 Jan 2022