"Autism is part of who I am."'Dr. Temple Grandin, author, speaker, leading expert in the welfare of farm animals
According to autismspeaks.org, approximately 1 in 88 American children is identified as on the autism spectrum, citing statistics from the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) and autism are general terms for a group of complex disorders of the brain, by varying degrees, with difficulties in social interaction, communication (both verbal and nonverbal), and repetitive behaviors. ASD is also associated with intellectual disability, difficulties in motor skills, as well as physical health issues.
Research has yielded answers to the possible causes of autism; over the past few years, scientists have identified a number of factors, including rare gene mutations, where in many cases, the cause of autism is a combination of genetic predisposition and environmental factors influencing early brain development. "The clearest evidence of these autism risk factors involves events before and during birth." Factors include the advanced age of the parent at time of conception (both mother and father), maternal illness during pregnancy as well as difficulties during birth, specifically involving oxygen deprivation to the baby's brain. It is the combination of these factors and genetic risk which increases the likelihood of autism.
In efforts to help their children with autism, parents engage in a myriad of therapies, including speech therapy for those with speech delays, or are nonverbal; physical therapy may be used to develop muscle tone, or improve coordination; occupational therapy may be used to help children with daily skills to aid in independence and social skills. An extremely productive means of helping children with autism: service dogs.
Tender Loving Canines Assistance Dogs
A nonprofit since 1998, Tender Loving Canines Assistance Dogs, Inc. (TLCAD), based in San Diego County, was created, aspiring to offer what the majority of assistance dog organizations couldn't, extended customized training, one trainer and one dog, from "puppy to placement." The 8-week-old puppies live at home with their trainers, many of whom are volunteers. TLCAD works with the team for 4-6 months until training is complete with final certification (when ownership of the dog is transferred to the client). TLCAD focuses on the two groups in San Diego County in most need of a service dog, Wounded Warriors and children with autism. TLCAD is accredited by Assistance Dogs International (ADI), a coalition of not-for-profit assistance dog organizations, striving to set exemplary standards in all areas of assistance dog training, placement, and utilization of assistance dogs. TLCAD places the service dogs at no cost to the clients, relying on donations.
Service dogs have a resounding impact; the team that affected TLCAD President, Karen Shultz, was a quadriplegic gentleman (originating from a motorcycle accident 25 years ago), working with the San Diego Padres; he had limited use of his arms, used a manual wheelchair, and could drive. He was partnered with the first dog Shultz trained (when she joined the organization eight years ago), a Yellow Labrador, Sage.
The gentleman attends football games and concerts, and greets people at Padres' games, striving to give everyone the best experience possible, especially for those with disabilities, older people, or people with service dogs. The gentleman works to make the lives of those with limited abilities better, whether working with the Padres or writing a letter to Sea World, with a design in constructing a better seating area for the dolphin attraction; currently, the seating area is too narrow for a person with disabilities and their guest.
The "Leash on Life" program began in efforts to help children with autism. Shultz attended a talk in Baltimore, where a woman from Canada told of her child, refusing to place him in a home; rather, she sought a service dog group in Canada. He had the propensity of escaping; a belt-harness was placed on him, leashed to the service dog's vest; when he attempted to run, the dog would lay down. He is now in high school with his dog. Inspired, Shultz went to Canada for three weeks to observe the techniques.
TLCAD has an "applicant pool," as the ultimate goal is to match the dog's skills to the individual client's needs, where the process can take as long as two years; the objective is to create a successful working team. The autism pre-application summary form is filled out; then an interview is conducted to learn of the child's triggers (such as hypersensitivity), as well as ascertaining the needs of the child; commonly, autism is coupled with another issue, such as Cerebral Palsy, muscle weakness, or balance problems.
A study was done by Kristen E. Burrows, Cindy L. Adams, and Suzanne T. Millman for the Ontario Veterinary College, the University of Guelph, Ontario, Canada, in 2008. The findings were published in the Journal of Applied Animal Welfare Science, entitled, "Factors Affecting the Behavior and Welfare of Service Dogs for Children with Autism Spectrum Disorder," concluding a crucial benefit to be the increased safety and security the service dog offers.
According to the study, the primary function of the service dog is to ensure the child's safety, as the dog physically prevents the child from bolting into the street, or away from his/her parents. The presence of the dog also alleviates the safety concerns of the child for the parents, as they feel secure walking with the child when the child was attached to the service dog. Dr. Temple Grandin, an American doctor of animal science, agrees, stating the "dog becomes a protector' for the child," in an article she wrote for Autism Asperger's Digest.
As Shultz accounts, TLCAD's first autism service dog, Muffet, was placed with a 5-year-old girl with autism/Cerebral Palsy in 2004; the non-verbal child often escaped; her customized vest was leashed to the service dog's vest, equipped with a "squishy" handle she held before moving forward. The family went to Legoland and Padres' games; calm, she looked at things, and sang, something her father had never seen; the change was almost immediate. Muffet only sat when the little girl commanded; it was the first time she spoke. She is now talking and in a mainstream school.
Shultz suggests that only a special dog can work with children with autism. The dog must be gentle, with a gentle mouth, and calm, as he/she is the "stable ground of the team." The determining point of which program the dog will participate is approximately 18-months; those working with children with autism are then exposed to these children at the Training, Education & Research Institute (TERI, Inc.) for children and adults with developmental and learning disabilities. The dog spends ten minutes with 70 students (who are low functioning), where the dog becomes accustomed to their body language and noises; with each subsequent visit, the time is increased, where the dog becomes desensitized.
The service dog's task is also to keep the child focused to get through the situation. A little boy who could never sit at a table for dinner was able to do so by wiggling his toes in Poppy's fur; he sat through an entire meal, then placed his plate in the sink, something he had never done before. The dog keeps the child calm, placing his/her head on the child's lap, licking the child's hand, or laying on the child's feet, being integral for dental visits; the dentist counts the dog's teeth first, then the child's; the dog can then lie on the child's feet during a teeth cleaning.
The service dog helps the child work through difficulty in fine motor skills. Tuxedo would "play" Candyland, by picking up the pieces; the child would imitate the dog by putting the pieces in bags. Magic, a black Labradoodle, works as a facility dog at TERI. He will sit on a mat, place a ball into a basketball hoop, then return to his mat. The children will then take their turns, putting the ball in the basket. Not only does this help children hone in on fine motor skills, it teaches them to be polite. The children will also participate in an agility class after watching Magic.
The study also addressed the child with autism exhibiting meltdowns or aggressive behavior. "Dogs developed a learned sense of when to move in to distract or comfort the child, and when to move away to avoid the child's anger." As Shultz recalls, a boy had a meltdown, where Magic, a calming influence, laid down next to him, placing his head on the boy's back, as the pressure of the dog's weight can calm a child; the boy fell asleep, and when he woke, he started talking, wanting the teacher to tell his friends what had happened with Magic. Unfortunately, facility dogs do not have public access as service dogs; only the service dog accompanying the person with disabilities gains access in public. The only exception, if a facility dog was attending an event with the individual(s) from the facility.
"You are" only limited by your creativity in what you can do," asserts Shultz. There is no limitation in the customized training of the dog, or the learning of a child; often, trainers "capture the behavior," creating a cue. Magic had been shaking his head (his ear hair was trimmed); a cue was captured. Magic would be asked in front of the children, "Is this right, Magic?" shaking his head for a "no."
The service dog creates an opportunity for a child's increased responsibility and independence (giving the dog water, measuring food, hanging up the vest, talking to people in public), allowing the child to do things they could never do before. The increased responsibility yields learning life skills (putting things in the trash, waiting your turn). The child is empowered, as he/she is given the opportunity to make decisions (if it was alright for someone to pet their dog). According to Dr. Grandin, the dog assists in social, emotional, and behavioral challenges children with autism face. "Some individuals with autism really open up and interact with a dog." The dogs can also serve as a "social ice breaker" since people are often attracted to a dog, and will readily interact with the child.
As autismspeaks.org states, "Each individual with autism is unique," where many individuals on the autism spectrum have exceptional abilities in visual skills, music, and academic skills. Approximately 40 percent of these individuals have average to above average intellectual abilities. Approximately 25 percent of these individuals are nonverbal, but can communicate through other means. The common thread among these awe-inspiring individuals is the confidence they have in the capability to be independent, to live a happy, full life, perhaps with the help of a service dog. As social rights activist, Susan B. Anthony, observes, "Independence is happiness."
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