How Can Autistic Kids and Dogs Work Together?

Children who have “autism spectrum disorder” often have difficulty making friends, expressing their needs verbally,understanding personal space and making eye contact. And with the entire summer looming before them, the end of the school year can mark a difficult time for the families of these children. Traditional camp environments are overwhelming for these kids and they are often left out socially because of inappropriate behavior or comments.

But fortunately for families in Austin, The Austin Dog Alliance in conjunction with The University Of  Texas Autism Project, has embarked on a groundbreaking program this summer using experienced and seasoned therapy dogs as an integral part of their Summer Program for children with Asperger’s and Autism. Most of us are aware of the tremendous impact, benefit and influence our dogs have on our lives. Now imagine the companionship, comfort, and acceptance that a dog could bring a child with special needs in a camp designed specifically for this. But most importantly the camp is designed so that these children are learning important social skills while working with dogs. Because learning is hampered when there is stress,careful planning and thought has gone into making this a stress free experience. Stress  is minimized by removing all decorations, giving instructions and schedules verbally and visually, and using specially trained peer volunteers who will model appropriate developing teen behavior.

Summer Camp Geared To Autistic’s Needs

Debi Krakar, Executive Director of The Austin Dog Alliance, has personal experience herself of the sorts of challenges that families face. For this reason, she has been keen to develop a summer program and has the insight to do so. As the director of ADA, a non-profit that supports community involvement of dogs and handlers by placing Delta Society Pet Partners Teams in settings such as nursing homes, she  has at her fingertips well trained teams.  These dogs have been tested for their stable temperaments,  thorough training and trusty manners. Children with Autism or Asperger’s can be volatile and unpredictable in their movements.   Uneven motor skills and over-activity are characteristic of this syndrome. The dogs that are participating in this program have already demonstrated that they are unflappable even in “complex” environments such as the camp.

In this camp, using these special dogs, they will practice and hone a variety of social skills. So, how exactly will this work?

“You Say Goodbye And I Say Hello”

Mixing with others can be challenging for these kids as they are not consistent in their responses to verbal cues, often have little eye contact, and their sense of personal space is sometimes different making interactions with others awkward or uncomfortable. What can they learn here by using dogs that will help them develop more appropriate behaviors?

“Watch Me” is a behavior that is often taught in obedience classes and the children will go through the steps of training this to the dogs.  But in order to do this, they must maintain eye contact themselves with the dog.  Autistic kids frequently make little or no eye contact in social settings.  They are able in this situation to practice that skill while interacting with a non- judgemental and loving dog.  It’s a beautiful arrangement.

Autistic spectrum disorder kids also are unaware of  the subtleties of social distances. They are sometimes called “space invaders” because of this as they will unknowingly make others uncomfortable by invading their social space or “bubble.”  Since a certain distance is necessary to train behaviors like “sit”, “down” , “shake” and “stay” they will actually be practicing using a comfortable and socially acceptable distance while engaging with the dog.

Developing Life Skills

These are the sorts of fundamental life skills they will get to develop and practice repeatedly. Dogs of course need repetition, and lots of it, to learn, so there will be lots of repetition for the kids as well. Though they will not actually be training any new behaviors they will be going through the steps thereby practicing and making these part of their social repertoire.

The beauty of this is that dogs are natural magnets for most kids.  They relish the attention. And they are not critical or judgmental.

By giving these kids the opportunity to hone social skills while “training” these dogs, the hope is that the socially complex world around them will become more manageable. The camp begins July 26th.  In August I will do a follow-up blog  and will interview some parents.  I am excited about the possibilities for this program and am anxious to hear the impressions of the parents.

Photo Credit: piha nzon flickr

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4 Responses to “How Can Autistic Kids and Dogs Work Together?”

  1. Connie 08. Jun, 2010 at 7:03 pm #

    Awesome concept & great article!! I’ll be interested in the follow up ~

  2. Elizabeth Deitz 08. Jun, 2010 at 8:16 pm #

    Hi Amy.
    It seems that people have found this pretty interesting. I will be following up on it. Hopefully I can get some photos.
    Thanks for the comment.

  3. Donn Rahmani 31. Jul, 2010 at 12:42 am #

    Very well written, thanks for the great information.

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