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Let’s hear it for autism assistance dogs!

by Chris Diefenthaler, Executive Director, Assistance Dogs International

April is a busy time for people with autism and their caregivers - and of course their assistance dogs! As we mark World Autism Awareness Day, World Autism Month and World Autism Acceptance Week, it’s a good time to celebrate the amazing work done by ADI member programs all over the world who raise, train and place life-changing autism assistance dogs.

It’s nearly forty years since ADI member National Service Dogs placed the world’s first autism assistance dog - a black Labrador called Shade. Over that time, we’ve witnessed a huge increase in demand, to the point where nearly half of all our members now train and place autism assistance dogs. By the end of 2022, 67 ADI member programs in 17 countries were offering this service. Most, but not all, of them focus on helping children and young people.

The difference that an assistance dog can make to an autistic child and their family has been well documented. Studies have found that dogs can have profound benefits for social skills and development, helping them build communication skills, cope with anxiety and engage better at school and at home. As if that wasn’t amazing enough, ADI certified assistance dogs are highly trained to help people with autism cope with specific challenges such as ensuring they can cross a road safely, preventing them from running off, reducing obsessive and repetitive behaviors, and applying deep pressure therapy.

It’s not just the child that benefits - assistance dogs can offer support to the family as a whole. A study by the University of Lincoln in the UK, which surveyed one hundred families who had attended Autism Family Dog workshops run by ADI member Dogs for Good, found that stress and anxiety continued to reduce significantly in families who acquired a pet dog compared to families who did not. Other research suggests that petting a dog for 15 minutes can lower blood pressure by up to ten percent - a huge benefit for stressed autistic children.

This year, World Autism Awareness Day is focusing on the contribution of autistic people at home, at work, in the arts and in policymaking. But for many people with autism, those contributions would be much harder without an assistance dog by their side. Recently, I was greatly moved by the story of Joel, who was seven when he was diagnosed with autism and who also lives with ADHD, speech, language and sensory impairment and a sleep disorder. Thanks to his ADI certified autism dog Caddie, Joel completed school and is now in further education - something his mom Janet thought would never happen.

In adult life, neurodivergent people often find making friends challenging and may experience social isolation and loneliness as a result. But an assistance dog can make it easier for people with autism to make friends - dogs act as a conversation starter, and having a dog at their side can make them feel calmer and even boost their confidence to socialize more.

It’s not all good news, however. As the UN notes, despite advances in awareness and acceptance, many autistic people still face discrimination - and that includes assistance dogs being refused access to public spaces such as restaurants, shops and transportation. I’m immensely proud of the work ADI and its members are doing to help overcome these barriers, but there’s still a long way to go. That’s why we advocate tirelessly not only for the rights of neurodiverse people but for the highest possible standards of training and dog welfare.

It’s vital that parents or caregivers looking for an assistance dog to help with specific conditions such as autism seek help from professional trainers and reputable providers. The ADI accreditation process ensures that members adhere to the highest operational, ethical, care and training standards for both dogs and users, to ensure they not only provide the best support for their users but are safe and well behaved in public. What’s more, studies have shown the potentially negative impact of introducing a poorly-trained dog into a family which includes a child with a neuro-developmental disorder.

In one sense, we’ve become victims of our own success. As demand for autism assistance dogs continues to outstrip the rate at which they can be trained and placed - some ADI members report a quadrupling of inquires - desperate parents may be tempted to train their own pet dog or obtain one from a non-ADI accredited trainer. Whilst that may work for some, it’s important to remember that training and placing an assistance dog is by no means the end of the journey, and ADI member programs provide 24/7 support for families who will certainly face some tough times.

At ADI, we’re playing our part helping people with autism to claim their dignity and self-esteem, and to become fully integrated as valued members of their families and societies. Next time you see an autism assistance dog out and about working, take a moment to celebrate these amazing animals and the difference they make to thousands of neurodiverse people around the world.

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