For parents who are considering a service dog for a child with autism, the following may be of interest. However, before you continue, I want to stress that this is MY opinion, based on MY experience. Therefore, you are free to disagree.
Again, I want to stress that this writing is based on MY experience – albeit someone who has had service dogs for more than 20 years and worked with numerous people with disabilities who have, or were interested in getting, such a dog for themselves or a family member.
I can not recommend a service dog to help a child in the middle or upper end of the autism spectrum.
Wherever there is a vulnerable population, there will always be unscrupulous people willing to fill the need with incredible and unrealistic promises. The same, unfortunately is true with service dog organizations, many of which have sprung up to fill parents with unrealistic promises of what a service dog can do. [For an example of a recent scam regarding promises to help children with autism using service dogs, see: Illinois AG Files Suit Against Service Dog Trainer Who Scammed Central Kitsap Family ]
Why do such organizations exist and who are the parents who “fall” for these schemes? A small story highlights the issue. When I was a graduate student there was a classmate who disliked children. As our studies came to a conclusion, I was astonished that this classmate decided to specialize in helping children with enuresis (bed wetting). “Why would you specialize in that field,” I asked, knowing his feelings.
With a greedy gleam in his eye, he replied: “Because parents will go anywhere and spend any amount of money to help their child.” I was disgusted but recognized the sad truth of his comment.
From the annals of service dogs, a story of parents with a severely autistic son grabbed my attention. They had had several close calls with their child, who had repeatedly opened the sliding glass doors in their living room and wandered out. They purchased a dog and paid to have the dog trained to cross in front of the child if he tried to go through the sliding glass doors. The system seemed to work. One day, however, when the child forcibly pushed the dog aside to open the doors, the poor dog, in his frantic efforts to do what he had been trained, struggled to stop the child and, when that didn’t work, bit the little boy. That did stop the child, but the resulting trauma was a steep price to pay. Ultimately, because he had bitten the child, the dog was put down.
“Why,” the parents were asked, “didn’t you just put on a child-proof lock to prevent the door from being opened?” I will never forget the stunned look on their faces and their embarrassed reply. They looked at each other and said, in unison, “Because we never thought of that.”
There was quite a response to this story. A number of viewers commented that the parents were stupid or naive. My reaction was different. The parents, I felt, were neither stupid nor naive, they had tunnel-vision. This is a common reaction when someone is so close to a problem, he or she simply isn’t able to consider what, to others, might be an easy solution.
In their desperation to keep their child safe, they had thought a service dog would, somehow, have the ability to reason and consider other options to prevent the child from leaving. For anyone who knows dogs, however, the dog’s reaction was perfectly understandable.
There have been only two instances where one of my service dogs was injured. In both cases, the dog was hurt by a child with autism. I am not saying that a service dog would not be an asset for such a child. But I am saying that it is unrealistic to expect something beyond what a dog can naturally do.
For families who want a dog as a companion, there is no doubt that an animal can bring relief and pleasure. But to believe the unrealistic promises from some of the organizations which claim to “train” a dog specifically for someone with autism is like asking a car not to run over someone walking directly in front when it’s going 100 miles an hour down a steep hill with no one at the wheel. Put the brakes on and consider carefully.
For additional information, the following organizations may be helpful:
Autism Speaks – web site: http://www.autismspeaks.org
Autism Society – web site: http://www.autism-society.org
National Institutes of Health [Autism] – web site: http://www.ninds.nih.gov/disorders/autism/detail_autism.htm
National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke [Autism Fact Sheet] – web site: http://www.ninds.nih.gov/disorders/autism/detail_autism.htm