The month of April is dedicated to understanding exactly what autism is and promoting inclusion for everyone who falls within the spectrum.
Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is a developmental disability most commonly affecting how a person communicates and interacts with others. In 2016, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that one out of every 68 children in the U.S. will face an ASD diagnosis. As a spectrum disorder, the disability affects everyone differently. There is no blanket treatment to solve all of the associated difficulties, but there is a special support system lending a helping paw.
New studies show that dogs and other kinds of pets have positive influences on those diagnosed with ASD. Autism assistance dogs don't guide their handlers down the street or perform physical tasks like opening doors. They're different than both service dogs and therapy dogs, but the roles they play in the lives of people with autism should not be underestimated.
Here are three ways living with a dog benefits those with ASD.
Furry, friendly, and completely non-judgmental, the simple presence of a dog is a powerful concept in relation to emotional stability. In a world where people communicate with body language, voice infliction, facial impressions, and even sarcasm, a dog's transparent gaze is a welcome relief to those who struggle to connect.
A dog is a friend 24/7--a friend that is always there regardless of differences or vulnerabilities. That emotional interaction is something children with autism may struggle to achieve with peers and even family. Interacting with a dog gives a child with autism the freedom to be themselves without worry. Parents of children with autism assistance dogs notice their kids begin to open up and express their personalities with more confidence.
Talking openly with a dog gives children both the courage and social skills they need to communicate with others. As the child is introduced to the dog, they form the kind of bond that is often out of reach for many individuals with ASD. According to Lisa Jo Rudy, author of the article, "Do People with Autism Lack Sympathy and Empathy," because people with autism struggle with interpreting body language, they often come across as unempathetic.
The friendship they form with a dog, however, helps them develop social skills needed to recognize and relate to other people's feelings. If they can interact confidentially with a dog, having a conversation with a child their age is slightly less scary. According to Autism Speaks, children with autism who have pets at a young age tend to develop greater social skills.
Large crowds, loud noises, and unfamiliar settings are scary and intimidating for someone uncomfortable with social situations. Those feelings can be strong enough to keep a person indoors and isolated. But having a dog by their side is both a confidence booster and safety buffer. Children with autism often panic in public situations and struggle to understand the concept of personal safety.
They may run into traffic if they get scared by something they encounter on the sidewalk or simply wander off intent on a purpose that puts their safety at risk. According to Project Chance, autism assistance dogs offer a unique form of help. The dogs are trained to stay with their young charges, and the child and dog can be tethered together to prevent the child from getting frightened and running away.
Dogs have the ability to adapt and be whatever they're needed to be. They're friends to children with autism struggling to make connections with peers, soundboards for venting, guides, teachers, and confidence-givers. They bridge the emotional, behavioral, and social gaps brought on by ASD-associated disabilities and have proven to bring positive change to the lives of thousands of people.
Do you know someone with an autism assistance dog? Let us know in the comments.
WATCH NOW: Donkeys Make Great Therapy Animals