Child’s Best Friend: Benefits of a Service Dog for Children on the Spectrum

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), one in every fifty-four children has autism spectrum disorder (ASD), usually diagnosed around the ages of two to four years old. Autism has some common characteristics—discomfort and difficulty with new environments, social communication, awareness of danger, and emotional stability—but because it is a spectrum disorder, every child is unique in the degree to which they are affected, how they express themselves, and the things with which they need assistance.

There is no cure for autism, but there are a number of tools, therapies, and interventions that have proven very effective in helping children and adults with autism to improve their communication skills, socialization skills, and behavioral issues. One of these tools is an autism awareness dog—a service dog specially trained to interact with, guide, and comfort those with autism.

Why Is a Service Dog Helpful for Kids with Autism?

Let’s dive in and answer this question in a little more depth. Jot down any questions you might have while you’re reading this article, and feel free to contact us with them—we’d love to help you find an autism therapy plan that’s right for you and your child. 

The benefits of service dogs for disabled children, and for children with autism specifically, have been researched and discussed for decades. Broader research on how animals can help those with autism has included interaction with horses, cats, and more. However, service dogs have seen the best results for many people with ASD. A service dog can help a child with autism interact with people, deal with over-stimulating environments and stressful situations, and even read social cues more easily. But, these are not the only ways they can help. Let’s take a look at a few more.

Help with Conversational Skills

One of the great things about animals (and pets, in particular) is that they have the unique ability to draw our focus. Service dogs can become the focal point of social interactions and help facilitate conversations when they accompany a child. Whether at a family gathering or the grocery store, people tend to make the same comments and ask predictable questions, such as, “What’s your dog’s name?” “What kind of dog is it?” or “How old is he?” All of these questions have answers that are easy to memorize, and since they’re asked often, the child is able to learn rote answers and engage in interactions they otherwise wouldn’t have been comfortable with. As the child becomes more confident, more conversations can take place about and through the dog, helping the child to feel more prepared and at ease.

Help with Eye Contact 

Another common challenge of autism is eye contact. As with many other social interactions and communications, eye contact can be very uncomfortable and overwhelming for a child with autism. Fortunately, service dogs can help; they are trained to make eye contact, which gives the child practice with doing so as well. When a child with autism becomes comfortable looking into the eyes of a dog, they can also grow to be more comfortable making eye contact with people. 

Help with Empathy and Social Cues

Parents can help their children learn to read human body language by using the service dog as a model. By learning to read the dog and understand what it wants and needs, a child with autism can learn to read other people, their facial expressions, and their body language, and therefore more easily pick up their social cues. Regular practice with the dog can be of great help to the child in their social development, as it will give them more confidence in their ability to aptly read and interpret different social situations.

Help with Other Communication Skills

Many autism awareness dogs are trained for a two-leash system that allows the child and the parent to each hold the leash when leading the dog. The parent then acts as the facilitator between dog and child, teaching the child to give the dog commands. This builds interaction and communication skills between the dog and the child, but also between the child and the parent, which can lead to further improved communication with others.

Service Dogs Can Act as Useful Intervention Tools

Among other things, the Purdue Veterinary Medicine’s Organization for Human-Animal Interaction Research (OHAIRE) explores “the unique interactions between people with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and animals.” In their studies, OHAIRE has found that animals may not only be helpful in the growth and social development of those with autism, but that they can also be valuable as intervention aids. Let’s take a look at a few examples.

Draw Human Attention

Animals have the ability to draw and focus our attention. One study shows that children with autism look at the faces of dogs much longer than they do at the faces of humans. This could be for many reasons—one of which is likely that there is no social pressure associated with a dog’s face as there is with a human’s. Therefore, having an animal present may help to keep a child with ASD focused throughout an intervention.

Act as “Ice Breakers”  

People are more likely to engage socially when there are animals around them. As mentioned previously, animals can act as wonderful conversation starters. This can significantly help people with autism (particularly those who face difficulty in social situations) have more conversations, building their confidence and social skills. Several studies have also found that children with ASD smile more often and are more social when there are animals present, which can help them appear more approachable to others, as well as feel more comfortable in being approached.

Offer Unconditional Companionship

Children with autism are at a much higher risk of falling victim to bullying than their peers. They are also more likely to experience stress, anxiety, panic attacks, and other stress-related symptoms. While the child is in school, these issues can become serious and impede learning, cause withdrawal and depression, and negatively impact the child mentally, emotionally, and physically. 

Thankfully, service dogs can offer some valuable relief for these overwhelming experiences. They can be trusted to give the child non-judgmental, unconditional companionship—the kind of constant, loving presence that can aid in stress-relief and eliminate the loneliness that many children with autism spectrum disorders may face. 

Autistic Child Support Services in Little Rock

If you are seeking treatment for autism in Little Rock, you’ve come to the right place. Integrity Inc. is a non-profit community services organization that provides alternative, community-based, in-home care and rehabilitative therapy services for people with developmental and intellectual disabilities. We are licensed by the DHS, and we offer customized treatments for children with autism in Little Rock. 

Integrity Inc. has been serving the community and offering child disability services in Little Rock for over 20 years. If you have any questions about the benefits of a service dog for disabled children, or if you’d like to learn more about our autistic child support services, contact Integrity Inc. online or call 501-406-0442 today. 

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