Autism is a notoriously hard disorder to get a handle on. It affects 21.7 million people worldwide, and is present from childhood. There’s no blanket cure for the disease; as it is a mental disorder, it has to be treated and managed in stages, with different approaches for individual patients. Autism is characterized by a number of symptoms. The most pervasive of these is impaired social interaction, which is then compounded by limited communication and repetitive, restricted behavioral patterns. The symptoms are diagnosed before a child turns three-years-old, but there are certain cases where a child can reach their typical developmental milestones and then regress.
Of course, though they are impaired in one sense, people with autism might be normal, or even occasionally superior, in others. The disease is highly variable, and usually has genetic causes, though no one factor has been determined to cause it. People with autism lack an intuitive sense of social interaction that normal people develop in childhood and then take with them for granted into their adult life. What this means in practical terms is that people with autism generally smile less, and rarely make eye contact. They also don’t have the facility to use simple movements to express themselves, such as pointing at things, shrugging or hugging.
Treatment for autism is focused on the lessening of associated defects, and increasing the quality of life for the sufferer themselves and their immediate family. Giving the autistic person their own sense of independence is also an important and functional objective of many treatments. As with any mental disorder, the treatment has to be tailored specifically to each sufferer and as the patient in question will undoubtedly have trouble communicating, this makes battling autism a long and difficult road. Still, in 2016, we have a pretty good grasp of which measures work and which are effective starting practices for children with autism. Families and the child’s educational system are the first point of contact for traditional treatment, but recently there’s been research undertaken which concludes that the presence of an animal might be of significant help to autistic patients.
The 2014 study, published in the Journal of Pediatric Nursing, surveyed a number of families with an autistic child about the child’s interaction with dogs. 67% of the families owned a dog, and of those a comprehensive 94% reported that their children were bonded to the dogs. Even in the families that didn’t own a dog, seven out of ten parents said their child enjoyed interacting with the animals. So clearly, dogs are of great benefit to autism sufferers. This correlates with previous research that indicates that interactions with a pet contribute positively to an autistic child’s social progress.
So this is where emotional support animals (or ESAs for short) come in.
Providing an autistic patient with a fully-trained therapy dog, or even recommend that they avail of a service dog, seems like a big step for such a fragile, unknowable condition. The ESA provides a middleman (or dog!) for those with autism, but they can also help other sufferers of mental illness. People with depression, anxiety, bipolar and PTSD can also benefit hugely from the presence of an ESA Unlike a therapy of service dog, Emotional Support Animals aren’t formally trained; in fact, they don’t receive any kind of training whatsoever. Their form of therapy comes from their very presence, where they benefit their owners just by being nearby and available. This is in stark contrast to therapy dogs, who are specifically trained to interact with others, apart from their owners; these animals are usually brought to institutions such as prisons, nursing homes or hospitals and used therapeutically with the inmates or patients. An ESA is focused entirely on their owner and they’re only present in order to support them.
Generally, when it comes to ESAs and autism, we can refer to the animals as emotional support dog (ESD), as that is where the research indicates that the most benefits are to be found. So how exactly can a dog help an autistic sufferer. Well, the first thing to remember is that an ESD doesn’t need to be brought in new to the family upon recommendation by a doctor; if there is an existing pet with which the child has a bond, that can be ‘promoted’ as it were to an emotional support dog. What this means in practice is that the doctor provides a letter stating that the sufferer has a verifiable disability, and that the dog is part of the patient’s therapeutic program. These emotional support animal letters allow the pet to accompany the disabled person anywhere and everywhere they might want to go, even if it’s places that a normal pet wouldn’t be allowed.
The ESDs can accompany the autistic child into restaurants, shops and also onto airplanes, where they can provide great comfort to the child if they get particularly panicky about air travel or in crowded airports. The doctor’s sanction also lets the animal live in rented accommodation with the family, even in a place where there might be a ‘no pets’ policy in place. The landlord or property owner must acquiesce to the doctor’s letter and follow the guidelines laid down in the law about the treatment of disabled people and their emotional support animals.
So, once a pet is cleared for status as an ESD, it becomes quite hard to separate the dog from the family. In this way, parents of autistic children can be sure that their child will receive constant emotional support without interruption. If the child’s bond with the animal in question is particularly strong, this might be a make-or-break factor in their treatment. But what are the physical ways that dogs can help children with autism? The main comfort they provide is being a solid, sound, unfaltering companion in the face of sensory overload. Overload is a common challenge for some children with autism, and an almost daily occurrence for some sufferers. It stems from the autistic inability to filter out sensations which are unimportant; in contrast to the normal brain, which can pick and choose, the autistic brain experiences all sensations at once, without a recourse to ignore or redirect them.
All this can lead to an overload, which can then see the child begin to act out their repetitive behaviors, such as banging their head against the wall or rolling on the ground. The presence of an emotional support dog is a great way to short-circuit these overloads, as it gives the child a presence to focus on and ground themselves with. The dog doesn’t even need to be doing anything; just its presence will intuitively help the child, especially if they can reach out and touch the familiar. It will help filter out some of the strange, unexplained sensations the child is being inundated with, while going a long way towards calming them down and regaining their composure.
An Emotional Support Dog can help in other ways. Usually the best breed of dog for the job are large, calm, furry breeds like a golden retriever, a Labrador or a St. Bernard. That way they can be a physically big presence in the child’s life, which translates to being a big presence when the child is in crisis and needs help. Obviously, a dog of even temperament is required when dealing with an autistic child; they will need to endure a lot of strange noises and behavior, as well as odd body language and repetitive motions. If they can weather these storms, the child begins to see them as a nonjudgmental and tolerant presence, making them far more comfortable with them as time goes on.
Ultimately, an emotional support dog can help an autistic child feel safe and secure in a world that is constantly awash with both perceived and real stress. As ESAs are a relatively new type of therapy animal, there is still much research to be done as to how they can better help sufferers of mental disability; but luckily, it’s already been proven that the presence of a trusted animal is of great and tangible help to autism patients all across the spectrum. In that way, emotional support animals, be they dogs, cats or even miniature horses, are an asset to autistic children everywhere, and their benefits should not be overlooked.