In the last few years, the use of service dogs for children with autism has grown. Many people do not understand why service dogs would be of use for children with autism since a service dog does not ameliorate the condition of autism and does not perform “therapy.” So what is the role of the dog? In a recent article, Thomas Zane discusses the benefits of Autism Service Dogs. His main point is that these dogs can increase the safety of a child with autism. While that may be correct, a service dog has a very important additional role that is mostly unrecognized and under appreciated: a dog normalizes the child to the community.
If the family deploys the service dog wisely, and the service dog is able to go “under cover” and simply look to the outside world as the family dog, that dog can become a social lubricant to the community on the street and with other kids and parents in the park. Dog owners are repeatedly stopped and asked about their dog when out on a walk. The dog gives the child opportunities to answer questions and to engage in conversation. What’s great about this conversation is that the child can be taught to answer the various questions that are generally asked again and again. In short, the dog can help to de-stigmatize the child and his family, and the family becomes recast in the neighborhood as the nice family with the great dog, rather than perhaps that stressed out family with the special needs kid. Once there is a dog in the mix, the family is far more approachable and the child carries a new label: dog lover or dog owner.
There is a big world out there of dog lovers, and they recognize each other. You are either a member of the “dog lover’s club” or not. The beauty of a service dog is that, to the uninitiated, the dog just looks very well bred, with a great disposition, rather than professionally trained. In addition, part of the training of a service dog can be simple tricks which act like a magnet in the park to bring children to interact with the child! Then the child with autism becomes the kid who is great at teaching the dog to perform on command. Competence replaces disability. Service dogs can certainly perform an important safety role for persons with disability, but for kids with autism, the dog’s service can extend to social normalization and community integration, for the child and family. That’s important too!