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Special Needs: Service Dogs for Children with Autism

Special Needs: Service Dogs for Children with Autism

Autism service dogs are providing families with much needed assistance, peace of mind, and a big doggy dose of unconditional love.

Mom Michelle Lasker got Leia, a black Labrador, to take care of her 7-year-old son, Tyler DeMari, who is autistic. He is very sensitive to sounds and smells and has trouble in public places—he would run away from his mom in malls and supermarkets.

Lasker, who lives outside of Buffalo, New York, got Leia through 4 Paws for Ability. Leia was trained for single-minded search and rescue missions, among other things. During a 10-day session last August, 4 Paws trainers and Lasker ran several drills each day to be sure Leia could pick up Tyler's scent in a crowd. But not only can Leia quickly fetch Tyler in a public place, she also helps keep him calm. Says Lasker, "The behavior modification is amazing-a tantrum that was once 20-30 minutes is down to two minutes now."

The Healing Power of Paws

Though dogs have long been man's best friend, the canine-human connection has continued to expand, from beloved pet to highly trained assistant—guiding the blind, aiding the disabled, and helping kids with autism. Nonprofit organizations such as 4 Paws carefully select dogs based on temperament and intelligence, and then rigorously train them to become autism service dogs.

After years of overwhelming stress dealing with her son's autism, Jane White* applied for an autism service dog. Her 11-year-old son, Sam*, had been through various therapies, medication trials with the resulting terrible reactions, and multiple hospitalizations. He struggles with sensory issues and mood dysregulation, which complicate even the simplest interactions. In addition, Sam's incredible anxiety made it impossible for his mother or older brother, William*, to ever leave his side. "I thought if Sam had the benefit of a constant companion he might start to feel more secure, and be able to navigate and be more social," says the Manhattan mom.

Louie*, the yellow Labrador retriever that White got through Autism Service Dogs of America, is everything she had hoped for. Before Louie, "Sam couldn't even calm his brain down to think straight, much less deal with all of the uncomfortable sensory feelings [from] minute to minute," she says. "Now he is less anxious and wants very much to interact more. He's able to share ideas and things he's learning in school."

Dr. Melissa Nishawala noticed a marked change the first time Sam visited with Louie. "He exhibited a calmness I had never seen before," says Dr. Nishawala, clinical director of the autism-spectrum service at New York University's Child Study Center. She and White have now discussed weaning Sam off some of his medications.

Prescription-Free Puppy Love

Samantha and Noel Mannion, of New Fairfield, Connecticut were desperate to find something that would help their autistic son, James. In addition to his tendency to bolt in public, the 6-year-old had become self-injurious. "The psychopharmaceutical meds made him worse, so we tried all sorts of alternative therapies-acupuncture, vitamin supplements, special diets," Samantha says. "Nothing was working."

Relief showed up in the form of a 70-pound pup named Ginger, from North Star Foundation. Ever since the golden retriever came to live with them, "The repetitive behaviors have pretty much stopped. His anxiety and meltdowns have been reduced," Samantha says. And Noel's therapist uses Ginger to enhance their sessions.

Science cannot yet explain why assistance dogs succeed where medications have failed. But the experiences shared by families like the Mannions, Whites, and Lasker, have inspired researchers, including some at the National Institutes of Health, to look for the scientific basis behind all the anecdotal evidence. In the meantime, families aren't so concerned about the whys and hows of it all, but are just grateful for these special dogs that have come to their rescue.


These nonprofit organizations specially select and train dogs to help autistic children and their families:

*Names have been changed to protect the privacy of individuals mentioned.

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