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How Emotional Support Animals Assist Children with Autism

Discover how autism and emotional support animals connect, transforming lives of children in the US.

steven zauderer
Steven Zauderer
May 31, 2024
9 min read
min read

Understanding Autism Support Animals

Exploring the relationship between autism and emotional support animals reveals a unique and beneficial bond that bolsters the quality of life for children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD).

Importance of Support Animals

Support animals play a vital role in the lives of individuals dealing with a variety of mental health conditions, including autism. A service animal for autism, for instance, can provide invaluable support by offering companionship and emotional grounding to individuals with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), helping reduce anxiety, improve social interactions, and enhance overall well-being.

Autism spectrum disorder affects around 2% of adults and children in the United States, with symptoms ranging from severely debilitating to high-functioning. This suggests that a significant number of people could benefit from the support of a service or therapy animal.

Support Animals for Autism

There are several types of support animals that can assist individuals with autism. Service dogs for autism, for example, can help individuals by providing comfort, reducing anxiety, improving social interaction skills, helping with sensory issues, providing a sense of security in public places, and reminding about prescription medications.

In addition to service dogs, a well-trained family pet can also be a wonderful calming influence for someone with autism. They can provide unconditional love, friendship, exercise, and social interaction opportunities.

Golden retrievers, labs, and labradoodles are among the recommended breeds for individuals with autism due to their calm temperament and high intelligence.

The various advantages of support animals for individuals with autism make them a noteworthy consideration for families seeking additional ways to support their loved ones. By understanding the role of these animals, one can better appreciate their contribution to the well-being of those living with autism.

Types of Support Animals

There are three main types of support animals that provide assistance and emotional relief to children with autism: Psychiatric Service Dogs, Therapy Dogs, and Emotional Support Animals. Each animal type has unique characteristics and serves different roles in bolstering the emotional and social development of a child with autism.

Psychiatric Service Dogs

Psychiatric Service Dogs (PSDs) are specifically trained to perform tasks that may be challenging for children with autism to do themselves. These tasks help manage symptoms of autism spectrum disorder and can include anything from providing a calming presence in stressful situations to helping with social interactions. According to Pettable, Autism service dogs can facilitate more successful social outings by providing comforting tactile support and preemptively identifying potential triggers in social settings.

Tasks Performed by PSDs Description
Comfort Provision Providing a calming and comforting presence in stressful situations
Anxiety Reduction Reducing anxiety through their steady and predictable behavior
Social Interaction Improvement Facilitating successful social interactions by providing a non-threatening and friendly presence
Sensory Issue Assistance Providing a diverting focus during overwhelming sensory moments
Security in Public Offering a sense of security and familiarity in public places
Medication Reminders Reminding about prescription medications, if necessary

Therapy Dogs

Therapy dogs are trained to provide affection and comfort in therapeutic situations. Their role is to promote social interaction and provide a calming influence within the autism community. As Autism Speaks mentions, these dogs are not specifically trained to perform tasks but instead provide therapeutic contact and companionship. Their gentle demeanor and unconditional love can be soothing to children with autism.

Emotional Support Animals

Emotional Support Animals (ESAs) are primarily pets that have been certified by a professional as being crucial to the emotional well-being of their owner. Unlike service dogs and therapy dogs, these animals do not necessarily undergo any specialized training. Their primary role is to provide comfort and support, which can be especially beneficial for children with autism. Verywell Health notes that autistic individuals who have pets or ESAs benefit in measurable ways from the experience, notably in terms of emotional well-being and social interaction.

Understanding the different types of support animals can help in making an informed decision about which animal may be the best fit for a child with autism. Each of these animals can contribute to the emotional and social development of a child with autism in their own unique ways.

Benefits of Autism Support Animals

Support animals can provide a range of benefits for individuals with autism. These benefits are not just limited to companionship but extend to improved social interaction, anxiety reduction, and emotional support.

Social Interaction Improvement

Autism service dogs can facilitate more successful social outings for individuals with autism by providing a comforting presence and looking for triggers in social settings before their owner enters a room. These dogs are also trained to aid in communication, behavior, and social interaction, which are the main areas where autism tends to affect individuals the most. Dogs are the most commonly used animals in therapeutic settings for individuals with ASD due to their social and affectionate nature. Children with autism can benefit from spending time with a trained therapy dog, which can help them improve interactions, communication, and attention during therapy sessions.

Anxiety Reduction

Many individuals with autism have phobias and high-stress levels, which make it difficult for them to go about their daily life and interact with others. The presence of a service dog may reduce stress-related mental health challenges (e.g., agoraphobia, anxiety, and depression). Service dogs for autism can help individuals by providing comfort and reducing anxiety, which can lead to improved social interaction skills and a sense of security in public places.

Emotional Support

Support animals provide emotional support to children with autism by providing a comforting and reliable presence. This can be particularly beneficial in times of stress or discomfort, helping to calm the child and provide a sense of stability. Autism service dogs are also trained to identify warning signs of panic attacks, seizures, or other concerns, and can intervene if the person is at risk of self-harm [3]. This not only provides emotional support but also contributes to the overall safety and well-being of the child.

In conclusion, the relationship between autism and emotional support animals can be a powerful one. Support animals can provide a range of benefits for individuals with autism, from improving social interactions to reducing anxiety and providing emotional support. With the right training and care, these animals can make a significant positive impact on the lives of children with autism.

Selecting the Right Support Animal

Choosing the right emotional support animal for a child with autism involves consideration of the child's needs, preferences, and the animal's temperament and training.

Recommended Breeds

Certain breeds of dogs, such as Golden Retrievers, Labs, and Labradoodles, are often recommended for individuals with autism due to their calm temperament and high intelligence. These breeds are known for their ability to adapt to different environments and their eagerness to please, which makes them excellent companions for children with autism.

Dogs are the most commonly used animals in therapeutic settings for individuals with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) due to their social and affectionate nature. Children with autism can benefit from spending time with a trained therapy dog, which can help them self-soothe and improve interactions, communication, and attention during therapy sessions.

However, dogs are not the only animals that can provide emotional support to children with autism. Equine-assisted therapy (EAT), involving interaction with horses, has been found to be a useful form of therapy for children with ASD. It helps improve low moods, develop motor skills, and provides a sense of achievement by steering the horse. Therapy with farm animals and even guinea pigs has also been effective in improving social and communication skills in children with ASD.

Considerations for Selection

Selecting the right support animal for a child with autism involves more than just choosing the right breed. It's crucial to consider the child's interests, lifestyle, and individual needs. For instance, a child who is afraid of large animals might benefit more from a smaller pet like a guinea pig, while a child who enjoys outdoor activities might thrive with a larger dog breed.

It's also important to consider the training and temperament of the animal. The animal should be calm, patient, and able to cope with unexpected behavior or loud noises. The presence of a therapy animal should offer a sense of security and provide a calming influence for the child.

Studies have found that children with autism interact and engage more in the presence of a therapy animal. Therefore, it's essential to ensure the child feels comfortable and safe with the chosen animal, as this will facilitate a more successful therapeutic relationship.

Selecting the right emotional support animal for a child with autism is a significant decision that requires careful thought and consideration. With the right animal, children with autism can experience significant improvements in their social skills, communication abilities, and overall well-being.

Training and Assistance

One of the key aspects of autism and emotional support animals is the level of training and assistance they can provide. This training not only enables them to offer much-needed support to children with autism but also ensures that they are well-equipped to handle different situations.

Tasks and Assistance Provided

Psychiatric Service Dogs (PSDs) are specially trained to perform tasks that are challenging for children with autism to do themselves. They help manage symptoms of autism spectrum disorder, including facilitating more successful social outings by providing a comforting presence and looking for triggers in social settings before their child enters a room.

In addition to improving social interaction skills, autism service dogs are instrumental in reducing anxiety, assisting with sensory issues, providing a sense of security in public places, and even reminding about prescription medications. They are trained to aid in communication, behavior, and social interaction, which are the main areas where autism affects individuals the most [3].

Furthermore, these dogs are trained to identify warning signs of panic attacks, seizures, or other concerns, and can intervene if the child is at risk of self-harm.

Training Process and Duration

The training process for autism service dogs is rigorous and extensive. It involves teaching the dogs to perform specific tasks to help the child with autism, including detecting and responding to triggers, providing comfort during periods of distress, and assisting with daily activities.

The duration of the training process can vary significantly based on the specific tasks the dog is being trained to perform. It's important to note that the training process does not end once the dog is placed with the child. Ongoing training and reinforcement are necessary to ensure that the dog continues to respond appropriately to the child's needs.

The cost of an autism service dog can range from $12,000 to $30,000, excluding routine expenses like food and grooming. Acquiring a service dog can be a long and sometimes challenging process, but the benefits these animals provide to children with autism can be invaluable.

While the training process and associated costs can be daunting, the unique assistance that these specially trained animals provide can significantly improve the quality of life for children with autism. Thus, for many families, the benefits of having an autism service dog far outweigh the challenges.

Legalities and Rights

Understanding the laws and regulations surrounding emotional support animals is crucial for parents or caregivers of children with autism. These legalities help protect their rights and also outline their responsibilities.

Laws and Regulations

Legislation generally requires that individuals accompanied by service animals, including guide dogs, be provided access to any place open to the public. Emotional support animals, however, may not have the same legislative protection. Their use by individuals with mental health conditions may be protected under human rights legislation if it is part of their treatment or helps mitigate their condition.

Rights of Owners

Owners of emotional support animals have certain rights. They are usually allowed to bring their animals to places open to the public. However, the animal should not display aggressive or disruptive behaviors. If the animal does not behave appropriately, the owner may be asked to leave.

Physicians are advised to accommodate children with emotional support animals up to the point of undue hardship. This could include offering virtual appointments or scheduling appointments at the end of the day. Refusing to see a patient with an emotional support animal could lead to discrimination complaints, lawsuits, or human rights complaints [5].

To prove that an animal is an emotional support animal, physicians may ask to see a letter from a mental health professional supporting the child's use of the animal. Even without a supporting letter, physicians should generally accommodate the patient and allow them to attend with their animal.

In conclusion, understanding the laws and rights associated with emotional support animals is essential for parents and caregivers of children with autism. This knowledge helps ensure that the child gets the necessary support, while also maintaining the rights of others in public spaces.

References

[1]: https://pettable.com/blog/service-animal-for-autism

[2]: https://www.autismspeaks.org/expert-opinion/service-dog-or-therapy-dog-autism

[3]: https://usserviceanimals.org/blog/service-dog-for-autism/

[4]: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC8907032/

[5]: https://www.cmpa-acpm.ca/en/advice-publications/browse-articles/2023/emotional-support-animals

steven zauderer

CEO of CrossRiverTherapy - a national ABA therapy company based in the USA.

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