Autism Service

Unlocking a Child’s World…

Autism is an invisible disability and until a cure is found, positive interventions are needed to help these children and their families. Autism service dogs are playing a bigger role and Service Dogs of Virginia is proud to train these exceptional dogs for exceptional children. We partner with the educators, parents and therapists involved in each child’s educational program to utilize our dogs as a motivational tool to affect change. The goals for some of these children may seem small, but they are in fact major stepping stones toward greater growth and autonomy.

Increase safety Many autistic children bolt into traffic, wander off in a crowded mall, disappear at a sporting event — it happens in seconds and is a frightening part of daily life for families with an autistic child. The autism service dog aids parents in keeping their child safe through a system where the dog and child are tethered together under the control of a parent.

Improve fine and gross motor skills Some children with autism have gross or fine motor skill challenges. Brushing and petting the dog appropriately may be big goals for some children. This kind of work will foster the bond between dog and child, help with motor skills, and help a child stay on task for increasing amounts of time.

Increase child-initiated social play and leisure activity skills Children with autism typically do not initiate social play, play well with others or make appropriate use of playtime. We teach the dog a careful retrieve so that we can have the child throw a ball, which the dog then brings back. Interactive social play with a dog helps children learn to play appropriately with other people using give and take and taking turns.

Improve communication Many children with autism cannot communicate effectively and some cannot speak at all. Children are motivated to cue the dog to sit or down, shake or roll over, because the dog responds quickly. For verbal children, when approached by people in public (when out with a dog, everyone wants to pet the dog), they are taught to respond with their dog’s name, age, weight, etc. and thus learn how to have a functional dialogue. With regular practice, children develop greater comfort talking to others which helps to lay a foundation for communicating.

Improve response to challenging situations Children with autism may scream, run and act out in inappropriate ways to stress and change. Trying to replace an inappropriate social behavior with an appropriate one is both a social and functional goal for children with autism. A child must be at least 4 years old to be considered for an autism service dog.

service dog with tether

You might ask: What difference could a service dog make for a child with autism? I can tell you: All the difference in the world. Maybe you know a child with autism, maybe you’ve seen firsthand how isolating it can be — never knowing what to expect, or what might trigger the child’s anxiety and fear. Where could I take my son, Seva? What was safe? What if we were hiking and Seva suddenly refused to walk another step? What if he wandered away in a crowded museum? Even getting through the grocery store presented challenges.

We were exhausted, too. Seva couldn’t sleep, so no one did. We had many tools, resources, and therapies, but Seva needed something more.

Enter Sherlock. Now, on outings, Seva casually holds onto Sherlock’s vest, stopping often for petting breaks and smooches, chit-chatting happily with anyone who asks about his dog. Seva looks up at me to report how “Sherlock feels.” We go for long hikes, we visit museums and go to movies, waiting patiently in long lines with Sherlock. Seva now has neater handwriting. He’s shown improvements in his speech, he’s made reading gains, and is now sleeping through the night. The sounds of crying and anxiety have been replaced completely by the sound of a dog snoring. Seva comes home after school and plays wildly with Sherlock. Instead of having a tantrum, I hear laughter bubbling up from the backyard. — Dorothy, mother of Seva (Seva is pictured here at the dentist with his service dog Sherlock on his lap helping keep Seva calm)