A small study has shown that specially trained dogs can help bring “a whole new world of freedom” to autistic children and their families.
For Chantel King, a Mt. Gambier resident whose 13-year-old son James is autistic, the arrival of her black Labrador autism assistance dog, Winter, cannot be underestimated.
While James was just a baby when the dog was assigned to the family in 2011, she says the impact on the whole family has been “staggering” over the years.
“Thanks to Winter, James has been given a whole new world of freedom that he never had access to before,” she said
“Over the last 10 years, Winter has expanded James’ world in countless ways, giving him the confidence to perform in an eisteddfod, graduate in front of his peers, travel interstate and venture into public places.
“We were able to go on trips as a whole family instead of being separated and someone having to stay home to look after James.
“He changed our lives as a family.”
The King family’s experience is not unique, according to a new study recently published in the health and social care Journal in which eight families were recruited through an Australian Autism Assistance Dog (AADs) program to participate in semi-structured in-depth interviews.
Research found that the presence of a specially trained therapy dog for children with autism gives families the confidence to venture further afield and to many more places.
Their mobility in the community before and after introducing the dog was measured using occupational mapping, and on average families visited 8.5 more sites and traveled 20 km further from home after having the dog for more than a year.
Parents also reported greater freedom for severely autistic young children who were usually strapped in a stroller when leaving the home, as the AAD replaced the stroller but still acted as a natural restraint.
“Impulsive and unpredictable behavior is a hallmark of autism, and taking children out of their familiar environment is often too stressful for both child and parent,” said Dr. Shelley Wright, a University of South Australia researcher and qualified occupational therapist who supervised the study.
Parents reported that their child was calmer and felt more secure in the presence of the AAD, which helped prevent meltdowns when their child was feeling overwhelmed.
The study also found that the dog provided much-needed company for the children.
“In summary, many parents were unsure how to do without the dog,” said Dr. Wright.
“The parents we surveyed were much happier and more comfortable leaving home with their child after being given an autism assistance dog.
“A new finding from this study was the sense of freedom and peace of mind that comes from having the dog sleep with the child, improving sleep for the whole family and alerting parents when this happens.” [child] woke up and had a seizure on one occasion,” she said.
dr James Best, chair of RACGP Specific Interests Child and Young Person’s Health, said the study is “very positive” and confirms what many GPs have seen in their practices.
“I think it’s important for GPs to know that these procedures are happening,” he said.
“It is important to be aware of the different modalities that can be used to overcome these impairments.
“There’s a saying in the autism world: if you’ve seen a child with autism, you’ve seen a child with autism.
“Children experience social deficits, communication deficits and sensory problems and they come in many different forms. And the way these impairments affect the child can also be different. Also the way the dog can help is very different and often in multiple ways.”
dr Andrew Leech, a GP, educator and consultant with a special interest in pediatric and mental health, said researching this type of treatment is a no-brainer and highlights the special role dogs play in many families.
“Dogs allow the child to just sit still, they allow children to talk to them, they don’t hold grudges, they offer comfort – physical and psychological – and act as a sounding board for children who might otherwise have trouble expressing themselves” said Dr. Leech.
“It makes a lot of sense to open this up, and at a time when more and more children are being diagnosed with autism and anxiety disorders, what would stop us?”
But while the research is promising, there are many factors primary care physicians need to consider, and as with all treatments, Dr. Leech to be assessed on a case by case basis.
“Some of the kids I see get scared and restless around animals,” he said.
“In these cases, treatment may be longer-term; They may have access to an animal, but keeping an animal in their home full-time may not be appropriate.
“But this could be the perfect solution for families who are more rural or remote and may not have that social connection or the ability to see a psychologist. It could help parents who are having trouble getting their child to rest or sleep at night.”
The only frustration parents reported was a lack of public understanding of visitation rights regarding an assistance dog, with some places not understanding the law and denying them entry.
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