Service dogs for people on the autistic spectrum

It’s not easy to get by in today’s society when you’re autistic. Wherever you are on the spectrum, you’ll regularly run into challenges you can sometimes overcome with a bit of help, but that may also turn into a continuous struggle. These types of challenges can cause things that come natural to others to exhaust you, trigger meltdowns, or be simply impossible. And that is extremely frustrating. Often times those on the spectrum do want to go with the flow of life, but find themselves unable to. In spite of great effort and pain, and the right help, you eventually run into the limits of what a human can do. It doesn’t matter if we’re talking about what professional help, parents etc. can do, or the strategies you teach yourself to ‘manage’ your autism: sometimes, or maybe even often times, someone who feels overwhelmed by the human world needs help that doesn’t come from humans.

This is where animals can make a big difference. Perhaps you’ve heard of service dogs before, such as guide dogs or personal protection dogs. But chances are you’ve never heard of service dogs specifically for autistic people. To be honest with you, at Ronin we hadn’t really heard of it either (even though we’re quite deep into the ‘dog business’). Which is strange really, since you’d think that animals would be one of the first types of help you’d consider when you understand that those on the spectrum often struggle with human connection.

There are countless ways in which a dog can mean more for someone who’s autistic than another human can. To name a few:

  • Dogs provide company, without double meaning. Usually autistic people do crave love from the world around them (they are everything but insensitive or heartless, they just have a different way of expressing it), but find it difficult to establish such a deep connection with other people. Humans often say one thing, but express something entirely different with their energy. This is confusing and causes those on the spectrum not to benefit that much from this kind of company. A dog on the other hand is always honest, open and uncapable of deceit or double meaning. This type of support can make someone feel safe in the human world.
  • Dogs are (especially when trained for this purpose) incredibly stable. They do not experience the mood swings humans do and that autistic people struggle keeping up with. The constant switching and change in how people express themselves, how they feel etc. is too overwhelming for those on the spectrum. A dog provides much needed clarity and stability.
  • Some autistic people also struggle with certain tasks due to problems with their motor skills etc. A dog can be trained to support its owner in the areas where he/she needs it. Whether we’re talking about making sure the owner doesn’t fall, or the dog being able to pick up small object for them, a well trained service dog can provide exactly what the autistic person needs.
  • Autistic people generally need a lot of structure and routine, although not everyone on the spectrum is capable of establishing that. Dogs are animals that are naturally drawn to routine. A dog will usually start asking for food or a walk around the same time every day. In doing so they automatically bring structure into the day, without the owner having to think about it too much.
  • In the outside world the dog can help an autistic person to go places he/she otherwise wouldn’t be able to go. And so the dog makes it possible to venture into a work environment, travel with public transport, take a plane, or visit other public places. A real service dog is allowed (almost) everywhere and can mean a lot to its owner there:
    • A dog can act as a barrier between owner and his/her surroundings. When you walk around outside with you dog, people tend to be more occupied with your dog than they are with you. Suddenly a lot less is expected of you in social terms. Eye contact isn’t as necessary, and when they engage in conversation with you the subject is usually your dog and not you. (I can tell you from experience that the questions you’ll be asked are usually similar and you can stick to a script of sorts.) In general it isn’t considered odd to be engaged with your own dog even when someone tries to talk to you.
    • A dog offers a steady point to hold onto when there’s chaos around you. You can pet the dog, look at him/her, talk to him/her, whatever makes you feel safe. ‘Stimming’ is something many on the spectrum do to regulate stress. Being engaged with your dog can offer the same type of support. A properly trained dog will be totally fine with this and may be even be happy to be used as a distraction.
  • Another something worth mentioning is that a dog can be taught to indicate when a meltdown or such is coming. As an autistic person, chances are you’ll only notice it’s getting too much when it’s already too much. And then there’s no more time to protect yourself and step out of the situation. The people around you can benefit from an early indication as well, so they can take necessary precautions. A dog can put its head in your lap for example, or indicate with its paw, sit down. The most important thing of course is to make sure the indication itself isn’t a sensory nightmare. Barking is probably not what you want. That’s why its’s essential to find a properly trained for this purpose.

These are merely a few example of what a dog can do for those on the spectrum in terms of helping them get by in society. A dog can be trained in the areas where you need the most support. In short, a dog can help one become more independent, but also helps make life just a little easier and more enjoyable. At Ronin we believe it’s only natural that someone on the spectrum deserves to have a buddy by his/her side. We’re currently working really hard to train these types of dogs and make them available for autistic people in The Netherlands and beyond. We recommend to get in touch with us for more information: we’re happy to help.


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