A specially trained therapy dog ​​expands the world for children with autism

A new Australian study looking at the effect of an autistic help dog on children and their parents has made an unexpected discovery: The dog has expanded its world, literally.

Having a specially trained therapy dog ​​for children with autism gives families the confidence to venture further afield and in many locations, according to researchers from the University of South Australia.

The freedom to explore new places is something most of us take for granted, but for children with autism and their parents, this is usually fraught with sensory challenges, says UniSA researcher and qualified occupational therapist, Dr. Shelley Wright, who supervised the study.

Reckless and unexpected behavior is a feature of autism, and removing children from their usual environment is often very stressful for both the child and the parent.”

Dr. Shelley Wright, UniSA Researcher and Qualified Occupational Therapist

Honors student Rebecca Appleby interviewed eight families who paired up with an autistic dog (AAD) as support for her child.

The study revealed:

  • On average, families visited 8.5 other places and drove 20 kilometers away from their home after having taken the dog for more than a year.
  • Parents report greater freedom for young children with severe autism who are usually strapped to a stroller for safety when leaving the house. The AAD stroller has replaced the stroller but still functions as a normal restraint.
  • Prior to receiving an autism assistance dog, parents were reluctant to leave the family home due to the stress involved, which led to feelings of siege and isolation. The dog let them out because their child was calmer and safer in his presence.
  • Parents reported fewer meltdowns among their children who pursued the dog when they felt exhausted
  • Children with autism often feel lonely because they find it difficult to socialize and communicate. The dog gave them the much-needed companionship.

“In short, many parents weren’t sure how to manage without the dog,” says Dr. Wright.

“The parents we interviewed were much happier and more comfortable leaving their home with their children after getting a dog that helps treat autism.

“The new finding from this study was the feeling of freedom and peace of mind brought about by the dog sleeping with the child, improving sleep for the family as a whole and alerting the parents when the dog woke up and, in one case, was enjoying a fit.”

The only frustration reported by parents was the public’s lack of understanding of access rights regarding the assistance dog, with some places not understanding the law and refusing their entry.

Mount Gambier resident Chantelle King, whose 13-year-old son James has autism, confirms the positive impact of Winter, a black Labrador who was set into the family in 2011.

“James was just a baby when we got into winter, but the difference he’s made over the years has been amazing,” Chantel says. “We were able to go on picnics as the whole family, instead of splitting up and someone having to stay home to watch James. James got a whole new world of freedom he didn’t have access to before, thanks to Winter.”

Now retired from full-time dog grooming duties, Winter is no longer legally able to accompany James indoors, but he has done more than that.

“Over the past 10 years, Winter has expanded James’ world in countless ways, including giving him the confidence to perform at eisteddfod, graduating in front of his peers, traveling interstate and venturing out in public. It has changed our lives as a family,” Chantel says.

The study was published in the journal Health and social care.


Journal reference:

Appleby, R.; et al. (2022) Australian parents’ experiences of owning an autistic assistance dog. Health and social care. doi.org/10.1111/hsc.13805.