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Why Dogs can be Beneficial for Children with Autism
Autism is described as a spectrum disorder with problems ranging from mild impairment in social skills and speech to extreme anxiety, isolation and the inability to relate to other people.
Practical experience and scientific studies have produced much evidence that having a dog in the home can be beneficial for a child with high functioning autism behaviors. The dog is normally a pet but there are service dogs that are specially trained to be a companion to an autistic child. A 2010 study by the Université de Montreal involved measuring the stress levels in autistic children by analysing the amount of cortisol in their saliva. The tests were performed before and after a service dog was introduced to the household and the results were described as dramatic. The presence of the dog led to a decrease in problematic behaviors and a lowering of stress levels.
It would appear that dogs are a calming influence on children with autism for a number of reasons:
- Dogs are non-judgemental and accepting
- Autistic children find the non verbal communication that occurs between themselves and dogs to be soothing
- Dogs have a natural ability to respond to body language
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What Type of Dogs are Good for Children with Autism
It is important that a dog for autistic children has a calm temperament. Excitable or unpredictable breeds are not suitable for children with high functioning autism behaviors. It is also important that the dog is trained appropriately and responds to basic commands.
Some children with autism have a sensitivity to sharp unexpected noises and will find a yapping dog stressful. Most yapping dogs are smaller breeds and some may bite if provoked or stressed. For this reason it's best to avoid toy breeds and those with a reputation for dominance such as Jack Russells.
Larger dogs with gentle natures are best suited to children with high functioning autism behaviors and experts suggest introducing them as puppies is best. Labradors and retrievers are commonly used as service dogs and also make ideal pets for autistic children. Other breeds such as collies, great danes, shih tzus and greyhounds have been reported as stable companions for autistic children. Larger dogs are more huggable than small dogs and this may be a positive factor in their relationship with autistic children.
Dogs can make ideal pets for children with high functioning autism behaviors. In some cases a trained service dog can be beneficial but a family pet is also helpful. The child feels comfortable with a dog and non verbal communication between the two can be meaningful. It is important to buy a dog that is stable and does not bark excessively or become too excited. Proper training is essential and with some guidance, a dog can bring about a great improvement in autistic children's behavior as well as reducing their stress levels.
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Asperger's Syndrome - A Guide for Parents and Professionals, Tony Attwood, Jessica Kingsley Publishers Ltd, 1998