Featured image: Yellow Labrador looking off to the right of the camera with its tongue out. Photo by Photokanok.
The law on assistance or service dogs differs between countries. I’m going to be talking specifically about the UK, but some of these points may also apply to other jurisdictions.
In the UK, service dogs come from a limited number of approved charities which select and train dogs for specific disability-related tasks. One could, theoretically, train a pet to perform some assistance tasks, however the dog would not be permitted in public buildings and landlords may refuse to accept tenants with pets. There would also be no help from disability charities with expenses like veterinary care.
Dog A.I.D (Assistance in Disability) matches pet owners with registered trainers, but the training process can take up to 2 years, and is only available to those with a physical disability. One can also assume that the dog maintains its pet status until fully qualified. You have to work with the dog you’ve got, which means you’re out of luck if your dog isn’t assistance dog material.
Dog A.I.D. does not train Assistance Dogs for people with mental impairment, autism, or those with epilepsy who require a Seizure Alert Dog. Nor do we accept clients with hearing impairment unless they have another significant physical disability.
– Dog A.I.D
Canine Partners train and provide assistance dogs for people with physical disabilities. However, they also do not provide dogs solely for autism or mental impairment.
Those whose sole reason for applying relates to epilepsy, autism, dementia or mental health issues, and who do not have any physical disability.
– Canine Partners on people not eligible.
Supportdogs trains dogs for a variety of disabilities and medical conditions. They even train autism dogs, however, they only cater to children and have a very limited service area.
Please note: This program is for children aged between 3 and 10 years.
This program has a catchment area of any distance that can be driven in 2 hours from our national training centre in Sheffield.
Finally, there’s Dogs For Good. They train a variety of support dogs, here’s what they have to say on the topic of autism
You may wish to consider our PAWS service, which provides workshops for parents of a child with autism to explore the helping potential of a pet dog. Workshops run regularly and take place nationwide. While attending the PAWS service does not give a pet dog public access rights, many families find the introduction of a pet dog has many positive benefits.
– Dogs For Good
We can conclude. then, that unless you qualify for a guide or hearing dog, or have another kind of physical disability, that you have to be a child to get an assistance dog for autism, and even then you’ll likely have to provide your own dog, and may not get a qualified service dog with access rights at the end of the process.
This is a part of a wider trend of dismissing invisible disability, particularly mental disabilities. The autistic community is also familiar with the lack of services available for autistic adults.
So what could an assistance dog do for us, in terms of practical tasks rather than as one of the frequently disparaged Emotional Support Animals?
Many physical disability dogs are trained to remind their handlers to take medication at the right time, this may also be useful for autistic adults who may use medication to control co-morbid conditions.
Physical disability dogs can also fetch items. This is an incredibly useful trained task for autistic people who struggle with identifying when they are hungry, thirsty or tired. Being brought a bottle of water, or a snack when you’ve run your energy down so low you can’t move is vital. As autistic adults, we either have to rely on other humans to do this, or manage some kind of system to ensure we always have food or drinj within easy reach. Which brings me on to my next point: Executive Function.
Executive function difficulties in autistic adults can present as forgetting or not being able to prepare for a future event. They can present as not being able to make decisions when overloaded, or being forgetful. A dog trained to bring objects, or put objects back in a specific place could help with the stress of finding shoes, coat and bag when preparing for an outing. The dog could also remind its handler to pack items like food and drinks.
Dogs can also help with meltdowns and dissociative states by seeking out quiet spaces, food or drinks, leading the handler home and preventing wandering. Dogs pick up on human body language exceptionally well, and may be able to detect the difference between dissociative wandering and purposeful walking. The dog could alert the handler to this; a canine equivalent of “you don’t look OK, let’s go home”.
A dog could help with sensory processing issues by detecting overloads and seeking safe spaces as for meltdowns and dissociative states. A medium to large dog could provide deep pressure by lying on the handler to help with sensory regulation.
If a dissociative state or overload becomes severe (which would be much less likely to occur with the above interventions) and the handler finds themselves dizzy, a large dog could provide physical stability to prevent falls. If the handler must lie down to recover, a dog can prevent injury by blocking people from stepping on the handler, like a furry traffic cone. The dog could be trained to bark to attract attention if the handler is in this state for a prolonged time.
In conclusion, there are many ways the support of an assistance dog could help autistic adults to be more independent and achieve self cate more successfully. It is a shame that autistic adults are not currently considered as a group which could benefit from assistance dog programs.