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Dogs For Autism

About one in 88 U.S. children are diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Autism can cause language delays, problems with social and communication skills and repetitive behaviors.
Getting a pet may help children with autism to develop their social skills, if the furry friend is brought into the home when the child is about 5 years old, according to a new French study.
Researchers found that children with autism who got a pet after age 5 showed improvement in their abilities to share with others and to offer comfort, whereas those who had a pet since they were born, and those who never had a pet, showed no such improvement.
“In individuals with autism, pet arrival in the family setting may bring about changes in specific aspects of their socio-emotional development,” the researchers wrote in their study.
In one analysis, the researchers compared the social behaviors of 12 children with autism from families that got a pet after the child turned 5, with the behaviors of 12 autistic children who never owned a pet, but were matched with the pet owners for age, gender and general language abilities.
Results showed that those who got a pet, over time, showed fewer deficits in their abilities to share food or toys with their parents or other children, while those who never owned pets didn’t show such an improvement. Additionally, those with pets also became better at offering comfort to parents or children who were sad or hurt, according to the study. The type of pet didn’t matter (although all the pets in the study were dogs, cats or hamsters), and neither did the child’s gender.
In a separate analysis, the researchers compared eight children with autism who had a pet in their home since birth, with eight similar children who never owned a pet. They found that those who’d had pets their entire lives were no different than those without pets, in terms of how their social skills changed over time.
Additionally, the study showed that children who got a pet when they were young tended to interact with the animal, spending time petting it and playing with it. In contrast, those with pets since birth showed far fewer of these interactions.
It might be expected that the longer a child had a pet, they more benefited, but that’s not what was seen, the researchers said. *Huffington Post

The child’s place on the Autism spectrum needs to be known. Social stories and social activity cards have been very powerful. You may have noticed that the child does well when there is a rule to follow and when he or she has had time to practice a behavior. By social stories I mean a short story in which a child interacts with a pet. The child in the story exhibits a desired behavior and this story is discussed. The simple actions (desired behaviors) are brought to the forefront and reinforced through simple questioning. This story is read and discussed over and over to help the rule become part of the child’s social norm. From this scenario it could possibly read something like:
“……………… I live with my mom and dad and my little sister Sally. We have one cat and her name is Missy. We have a dog named Buffy. Sometimes when I get really mad or upset I yell at Missy and Buffy. Sometimes I even want to hit them. It is not nice to hit or pinch our pets. Hitting and pinching hurts. When I yell at them they act nervous and that is not a nice thing to do. I will not hit or pinch or yell at our pets. Instead of doing something that hurts I will bounce on my ball or jump on my trampoline. I love our pets. They love me too.”

A story can be adapted for the exact scenario. The idea behind social stories is that they are read to the child frequently. It would be a good idea to add pictures of all the family members including the pets. By frequently reading the story himself or having it read, the child will begin to incorporate better behaviors.

Another idea:
Involve this child in caring for the pets at whatever level he can. Autistic children respond well to schedules. If the child is very involved he may benefit from a “picture schedule: — Actual photos of him would be good. It may look something like this:

The first photo may show him/her picking up the empty food dish.

The second photo may show him/her scooping the appropriate amount of food into the dish.

The third photo may show him/her putting the food away.

For a higher level child with autism, a schedule can be written out, with a checklist component.

The social activity cards help a child to break down simple actions and get a positive response. For example, if the parent wants to create a bond between the boy and the dog (and keep the dog from fearing the boy, etc.) an activity card can be created that has step-by-step directions in giving the dog a treat. These actions can be placed on a Velcro board and then removed when each step is complete. Example: card one- boy gets dog treat from box, card two- boy puts treat box away, step three- boy sits down on the floor, step four- boy calls dog (if speech is in his range)or motions for dog, step five- boy hold treat flat in his hand/ palm up for dog, step six, dog takes treat (boys hand gets a little wet), step seven- boy says “Good –dog’s name–“, you can add more or less depending on the need. This can eventually lead to a social activity of gentle petting. These tools can be very helpful, but each child is different. Start small and allow for success. Either way the two should be supervised when together.

There has been stunning success in using TAGteach to help children with autism control and modify their behaviour and decrease their frustration. I think this may be in part because the delivery of feedback does not involve language or emotion. It allows a form of communication that autistic children seem to be able to participate in. TAGteach is like clicker training applied to people. We use an actual clicker (a tagger to TAGteachers) to tell the child “yes that was right”. There is no force or physical prompting and the child is essentially in control of the situation. There are lots of experienced TAGteachers and dog trainers and some autism parents on that list who will have ideas. Here is a website for TAGteach and autism that cites some of the scientific research results and other information.

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