Autism and service dogs: A community talk

This is a rough draft for a community talk I am doing:

Autism is

A disorder in communication, both verbal and nonverbal.  People with autism are often delayed in speaking. They have trouble with many parts of language.  Idioms are often hard for them.  They use and understand language very concretely.  Something is or isn’t.  Things are black or white.  You have one emotion or another.  So something like “laughter through tears” is confusing for them.  They have trouble with nonverbal language.  Recognizing emotions.  When they are standing too close.  When people are getting annoyed or bored.  

A disorder of movement.  People with autism often move their bodies in non-fluid ways.  I can sometimes tell a person with autism just by watching them walk.  In spite of the fact that my boys all have very good senses of rhythm, their walking and running are awkward.  When the body has trouble moving, such as writing, it is called apraxia.  The brain can tell the body to move, but it just can’t do it fluidly.  When the mouth just cannot form speech, this is called speech apraxia.  This is a common cause of lack of speech in autism.

A disorder of senses.  The senses in autism are often overwhelmed or under-responsive.  Sounds in a gymnasium may be overwhelming.  But when your teacher talks to you, you may not hear and respond. Or sounds may be all muddled up and what is important cannot be separated out.  Lights can be glaring or distracting.  But it can be hard to gauge how fast a ball is coming toward you and you feel threatened and frightened.  Smells can nearly shut you down or you may want to smell unusual things.  People with autism may like very bland or very spiced food.  Nathan likes nearly everything salted.  A lot!

A disorder of self-regulation.  When we are tired, we get up and walk around.  Stretch a little.  But when my boys are tired, they jump up and down.  Run around.  Yell.  And then get over stimulated.  And the cycle starts again.  It is very hard to get in that happy middle at which we all do our best work.  And much time is spent trying to regulate their emotions and energy.

Service dogs are:

4 Paws for Ability is the organization we are getting our dog from.  They provide dogs for many needs: hearing impaired, vision impaired, autism, mobility impairment, seizures, diabetes, fetal alcohol syndrome.  They also provide dogs to people with multiple needs and to veterans.  The fund for veterans is to place dogs trained for their needs at no cost to the vet.

The dog we will be getting will be useful in many areas.  

Sleep: Dogs provide comfort and pressure at night.  Nathan has had periods in the recent past where he wakes up at 3 or 4 in the morning and can’t figure out how to go back to sleep.  So he gets up and wanders.  A dog might help him sleep better.  And hopefully would be an extra alert to him getting up.

Wandering: Nathan has gotten out of our view twice and was gone for 30-60 very long minutes.  The police were called.  In addition, when we are out, if he is irritable, he doesn’t want to be held.  What 12 yo boy does?  This may be one of the most useful tasks for the dog, as Nathan can be tethered to the dog and the dog provides the stability and guidance under our direction.  

Search and Rescue: The dog can be trained in search and rescue.  So that if Nathan does wander away again, he can be more quickly found.

Companionship: Nathan shows a lot of interest in people.  He loves to snuggle up.  He likes the excitement of games.  But many times he has a difficult time joining in.  A dog not only provides companionship, but is often attractive to other people.  A dog would provide a bridge to attracting, meeting and communicating with others.

A dog can be trained to interrupt repetitive behaviors, so that more useful behaviors can be learned.  

Nathan finds deep pressure useful, so when he is agitated one of us often sits or lays on him.  But this is not very socially appropriate in public.  A dog is trained to briefly lay on top of him for calming.  

Nathan is still learning street safety.  Because the dog is trained to follow a command to sit at every street, we hope that this will help him to learn to stop and look too. 


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