What is Autism?
Autism, or autism spectrum disorder, is a bio-neurological developmental disability that generally appears in children before the age of 3. Autism impacts the normal development of the brain in the areas of social interaction, communication skills, and cognitive function.
A child with autism, similar to an adult, typically has difficulties in verbal and non-verbal communication, social interactions, and leisure or play activities.
Those with this disease often suffer from numerous comorbid medical conditions which may include: allergies, asthma, epilepsy, digestive disorders, persistent viral infections, feeding disorders, sensory integration dysfunction, sleeping disorders, and more.
Currently there is no cure for autism, though with early intervention and treatment, the diverse symptoms related to autism can be greatly improved and in some cases completely overcome. The National Autism Association has a lot more information about treating a child or adult with a service dog on their website; read here.
Common Treatments and Coping Mechanisms For Autism
As more and more people seek holistic alternatives when developing their treatment plans, the use of assistance animals such as psychiatric service dogs is becoming more commonplace.
Due to the comorbid factors attributed to autism and the difficulty, or inability, of the child or adult to regularly make their needs known, adding another medication to a regimen likely already overflowing with prescription pharmaceuticals is not the best course of action. Especially when there are safe, alternative, successful treatments out there. And psychiatric service dogs, emotional support dogs and are at the very top of that list of holistic options.
Medical Professionals tackle autism in one of two ways. From there they tailor their treatments based on the specific individual’s symptoms and needs.
Professionals have found that many children with autism learn best in an environment that builds on their skills and interests while accommodating their special needs. Programs employing a developmental approach provide consistency and structure along with appropriate levels of stimulation. For example, a predictable schedule of activities each day helps children with autism plan and organize their experiences. Using a certain area of the classroom for each activity helps students know what they are expected to do. For those with sensory problems, activities that sensitize or desensitize the child to certain kinds of stimulation may be especially helpful.
When people are rewarded for a certain behavior, they are more likely to repeat or continue that behavior. Behavioral training approaches are based on this principle. When children with autism are awarded each time they attempt or perform a new skill, they are likely to perform it more often. With enough practice, they eventually acquire the skill. For example, a child who is rewarded whenever she looks at the therapist may gradually learn to make eye contact on her own.
It is critical that parents obtain reliable, objective information before enrolling their child in any treatment program. Programs that are not based on sound principles and tested through solid research can do more harm than good. They may frustrate the child and cause the family to lose money, time, and hope.
A full, science based report can be found through CASA, Court Appointed Special Advocates for children.
What are Psychiatric Service Dogs?
A psychiatric Air Carrier Access Act (ACAA) protects Americans with disabilities from discrimination. Disabled passengers have the right to have access to their service dog (PSD) is a type of assistance animal that’s trained to perform specific tasks for individuals living with a mental illness. These unique tasks are directly related to the handler’s disability.
Most of us are accustomed to seeing guide dogs supporting those with physical disabilities like a hearing or sight impairment. However, a psychiatric service dog helps people with typically unseen, unnoticeable disabilities.
For example, veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) who experience panic attacks or similar challenges can greatly benefit from the service of a PSD. Those who live with social phobia, depression or other depressive disorders can also find the service of a PSD to be incredibly beneficial.
For children and adults with an autism spectrum disorder who have difficulty communicating, socializing and moving, a trained service dog can work wonders for their mind and body equally.
Certapet’s Blog is updated weekly and full of informative articles, testimonials, and data from mental health professionals. For a more in-depth overview of this complicated subject, read our full article.
How Can Service Dogs Help with Autism?
Psychiatric Service Dogs and Autism Service Dogs (ASD) are trained in a variety of tasks that can address a range of issues facing a child or adult with autism and his or her family. These include socialization skills, behavioral skills, life skills, and fine and gross motor skills.
Service Dogs are gentle, tolerant and well trained, but each has its own personality that can be matched with an appropriate child. Some children may benefit from a dog that seeks out attention and elicits play. Other children may require a quiet, somewhat reserved dog to make them feel more comfortable. The type of dog that best suits a child’s needs is determined during the interview process.
A top website, NEADS, has great resources to paint a fuller, more easily understood picture of how children and adults with autism, or autism spectrum disorder, can benefit from autism service dogs, an assistance dog, or emotional support animal.
Mental Health Benefits
Autism Service Dogs (ASD) are trained to meet the specific needs of the child or adult diagnosed with autism or an autism spectrum disorder. However, no matter the breed, age, or background, a service dog, or a team of service dogs, is able to reduce or improve a lot of associated mental health symptoms and issues in most people, if not across the board.
An ASD can help autistic children and adults by creating an environment where the owner can feel safe practicing being more outgoing and extroverted. Also, autism service dogs can, just by being at their handler’s side, add meaning and purpose to their lives. The science and chemistry occurring in the background, for one, increases serotonin and dopamine levels, two neurochemicals related to calm and overall well being.
Physical Health Benefits
ASDs or Autism Assistance Dogs can improve many of the physical debilitations that come along with an autism spectrum disorder. Although things like sleep disorders, digestive issues, sensory dysfunctions, epilepsy, and persistent viral infections go hand in hand with a child or adult with autism, service dogs or therapy dogs for children, especially, can perform autism assistance with many physical improvements.
A service dog can assist with treating and coping with the physical limitations attributed to autism. With a child, more so than an adult, an assistance dog, service dog or therapy dog will keep many of their physical ailments at bay, not allowing the disease to progress as fast, and leaving more time for the service dog to routinely perform their trained tasks.
Some examples of what service dogs or therapy dogs for a person with autism, their families, and the safety of all:
- Therapy dogs can reduce stress, anxiety and, in turn, heart disease
- A therapy dog can improve blood pressure and lessen the risks for cardiovascular disease
- Service dogs for children, and all people, can help with getting outside, moving around and regularly exercising.
An insightful, research based article was made by the American Kennel Club to further assist an autistic child or adult, and their families.
Specific Tasks They Can Perform To Support Their Owner
The variety of specific tasks therapy dogs or autism service dogs can be trained to perform is staggering. The training of each dog or, at least, the majority thereof is created and honed to the owner’s distinct limitations, needs, etc.
A few which are especially helpful to a person with autism are:
- Interaction – An service dog’s companionship can provide therapeutic benefit for those living with feelings of depression, isolation, or tearfulness. Through tactile stimulation using their paws, deep pressure therapy, also with their paws, or other means, an ASD can interact with its handler in order to bring comfort and calm. The animal can also initiate desired or needed interpersonal interactions for their owner’s benefit. In other situations, such as in the case of insomnia, an ASD may provide interaction until their handler initiates sleep preparations or another necessary routine.
- Barrier – In crowded and/or claustrophobic situations, an autism service dog can act as a buffer to provide their handler with needed space. The ASD can increase their owner’s personal bubble by standing between their handler and other people so that their owner is at ease and comfortable. These acts can create an environment, anywhere in the world, where a person with autism can more easily integrate with the situation, communicate effectively, navigate physically, and feel more comfortable and confident about the entire process.
Working together with your autism service dogs and trainers, you can determine what tasks would best suit your unique situation and then begin training your service animal for that specific function. Our blog has this amazing companion post to provide more details.
Emotional Support Dog vs. Psychiatric Service Dog: What’s the Difference?
PSDs and ESAs are both a type of assistance animal that a licensed mental health professional or doctor can prescribe to someone as part of their treatment plan.
However, only PSDs are recognized as official ‘service animals’ under the Americans with Disabilities Act. As legally recognized service animals, they’re entitled to the following rights:
- Public Access Rights (under the Americans with Disabilities Act they can accompany their owner into grocery stores, restaurants, etc.)
- Travel Rights (under the Air Carrier Access Act, they can accompany their owner in the airline cabin and the owner does not have to pay a pet fee)
- Fair Housing (under the Fair Housing Act, they can live in housing units even if there’s a no pets policy)
- Educational Facility Access (under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, they can accompany their owner into schools, colleges, universities, etc.)
ESAs on the other hand, do not have the same privileges when it comes to public access and travel, due to new DOT regulations put into place on January 11, 2021. Many major airlines now only recognize ESAs as pets, which means owners will have to pay a pet fee. (More information on these regulations and the airlines that have changed the policies here: https://www.certapet.com/new-dot-regulations-for-emotional-support-animals/ ). However, people can still enjoy fair housing rights with their ESAs, even if they live in a no pets unit.
The reason for this difference is that PSDs have to be specially trained to perform a certain task or type of work that helps support a person living with a disability (ESAs on the other hand receive no special training – they’re just meant to offer comfort through their companionship).
To be considered a service dog, a PSD must be trained to perform a specific task (examples here: https://www.certapet.com/how-to-train-a-psychiatric-service-dog/ ), which is why partnering with a professional trainer is the best option.
We’re currently onboarding our professional dog trainers and will be offering this option very soon. In the meantime, those interested in getting a psychiatric service dog can begin the process by seeing if they qualify for a PSD through our free screening here: https://www.certapet.com/psychiatric-service-dog-screening/
How to Get a Service Dog for Autism
In order to obtain an autism service dog, or therapy dog, you must receive a recommendation from a licensed mental health professional or a doctor. This ‘prescription’ takes the form of a letter, which will be written on your health professional’s letterhead and include their license number.
There are no limitations to the breed of dog you can use as your autism service dog. Your ASD can therefore either be a dog you already own, a dog you adopt from a shelter or rescue group, or a dog you receive from a service dog organization. Keep in mind, however, that the dog must be specially trained to perform certain tasks in order to be recognized as a service dog under the Americans with Disabilities Act.
Once trained your child with autism will receive around the clock, vigilant assistance from whichever type of assistance dog you obtain. The person aided and their family are granted comfort and contentment as well, knowing that they are receiving safe, proven treatment.
Certapet wants you to get a service dog as quickly as possible. And we know our services can do just that through our certified telemedicine evaluation and rapidly submitted recommendation letters. If you have additional questions, read these Healthline and Top Dog Tips articles.
How to Train a Service Dog for Autism
There are two components of an effective training regimen for all service dogs. First, the General Public Access Test is performed to instill good manners in service dogs, ensuring that they behave appropriately in public settings. The second step, the specialized task/work training is done, which satisfies the requirement of all ASDs to be able to perform a specific action that’s directly related to their handler’s disability.
In the sections above, we touched on the different training methods of an autism assistance dog or autism service dog. Here are some more details, along with a supporting blog post, regarding the typical training of a service dog, therapy dog, or support dog in the setting of autism.
As autism presents both mental and physical limitations, initially and as we age, this two step training process can not only create a service dog out of any dog but tailor their abilities to combat each and every symptom the handler may encounter. If and when a new symptom arises, you, your child, and your ASD can meet with a trainer as much as needed, to work on that new issue as well as previous ailments.
The Best Service Dog Breeds for Autism
Each type of service dog can make incredible companions for an autistic child, and some can even provide specific services that help improve the lives of these kids.
The best breeds to curb autistic symptoms, improve behaviors and interactions with others are:
- Labrador Retriever
- Golden Retriever
- Old English Sheepdog
- Bernese Mountain Dog
- Bull Terrier
- Great Dane
Some traits to look out for, and require of the chosen service dog, to help your child or family member with autism are very important. A gentle disposition, large size, high intelligence, and easy orientation with people are necessary to better autistic behaviors, help physical limitations, and optimize interactions with others. K9 Of Mine’s article offers insight, help and hope to an autistic child and their family.
Are you interested in getting a psychiatric service dog?
Here at CertaPet, we can help. Certapet is an online telehealth platform that improves access to mental health care in the U.S. with a focus on providing services to individuals who are seeking animal assisted interventions as part of their treatment plan.
We are currently coordinating with emotional support dog trainers who specialize in the service animal space and who will soon work in tandem with our network of licensed mental health professionals to make the process of getting and training a psychiatric service dog affordable, convenient, and hassle-free.
We’ll have more information available soon about our Psychiatric Service Dog Training options. In the meantime, you can take our FREE pre-screening below to see if you qualify for a PSD!
Frequently Asked Questions
Can you have a service dog for Autism or Autism Spectrum Disorder?
Absolutely, yes. Service dogs are trained to assist in the activities of daily living for those who have one or more mental health and physical health conditions, including autism, anxiety and depression.
How do you qualify for a psychiatric service dog?
We have a fast, easy, and stress free way to determine just that. We start with a free screening, move on to a telemedicine evaluation from a licensed professional, and finish with a personalized plan and ESA letter of qualification.
What can a psychiatric service dog do?
Under the ADA, a service animal is defined as a dog that has been individually trained to do work or perform tasks for an individual with a disability. The task(s) performed by the dog must be directly related to the person’s disability.
Can I use any breed of dog as an emotional support dog or psychiatric service animal?
Any breed of dog can take to the psychiatric service training well and you can even use one you already own. However, there are particular breeds that excel in these kinds of emotional, stressful, and difficult situations.
How are support dogs trained?
Service dogs can be trained by you, the handler, or by you with the assistance of a certified trainer. A third option is to adopt a service animal from an accredited training organization for service dogs.