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Not all children with autism will benefit from therapy dogs

By Denise Mann Health Day Reporter

(Health Day)

MONDAY, Oct. 3, 2022 (HealthDay News) — For many children with autism, Rhett, a black Labrador, has been a calming and comforting influence during his seven years as a therapy dog.

But parents shouldn’t assume that a service dog is the solution for every child on the autism spectrum, a new study finds. Not all children with autism enjoy interacting with Rhett, a resident therapy dog ​​at the University of Missouri’s Thompson Center for Autism and Neurodevelopmental Disorders.

That’s the main message of a recent small study that investigated whether and when children with autism respond to therapy dogs as motivation to complete tasks and learn new skills.

“The key is to find out what motivates an autistic child, whether it’s playing with a therapy dog ​​or a favorite toy,” said study author Emma Keicher. She is an applied behavior analyst at the center.

Clinics may have therapy dogs on staff to work with children, and some families may consider adopting a service dog as a pet for an autistic child.

There are often long waiting lists at organizations that train and place service dogs in homes for children with autism. “Before bringing a dog home, make sure your child enjoys playing with dogs,” Keicher said.

There may be many potential benefits of a therapy dog ​​for some autistic children, she said. “Therapy dogs can be trained to act as anchors for children who run away,” she said. In these scenarios, the dog sits when the child tries to run away. “The dog can serve as a source of comfort in difficult social settings,” Keicher added.

But these benefits are only realized if the child responds and connects with the dog.

“Some children may hit or kick the dog or have no connection to the dog, and it may become too overwhelming for a family to care for the dog, and they may have to rehom it,” Keicher said. .

Autism is a developmental disorder characterized by problems with social interaction and restricted behaviors or interests. People with autism may also have learning differences, movement problems, and attention difficulties.

For the study, six autistic boys, aged 4 to 9, were told that if they completed certain tasks, their reward would be playing with Rhett or some other form of entertainment, such as playing with toys.

Two boys liked playing with Rhett much more than toys, two were indifferent and played mostly with toys, and two didn’t want to play with Rhett at all, the study results showed.

There are many things for a family of an autistic child to consider before working with or adopting a therapy dog, agreed Jack Scott, executive director of the Florida Atlantic University Center for Autism and Related Disabilities in Boca Raton. .

Therapy dogs can potentially save the lives of some children with autism, said Scott, who was not involved in the new study.

Seizures are relatively common in people with autism.

“Children with very severe seizures are at risk of falling hard and dangerously, and some dogs are trained to recognize the warning signs of seizures and alert someone that a seizure is likely to begin,” Scott said. Some therapy dogs can save autistic children from drowning.

Dogs can also help children with autism make friends on the playground, he added.

Scott’s advice? “Visit friends and family with animals to see how your child reacts before investing time and resources in a therapy animal,” he says.

“If you say don’t push the dog and he doesn’t get that message, the level of supervision will have to be very close,” Scott explained.

Positive reinforcement — a recommended strategy for parents of an autistic child — is anything that encourages appropriate and desired behavior. Playing with dogs is just one potential form. Other types of positive reinforcement include smiles, tickles, high fives, praise, or access to fun activities, Scott said. “Find what is best for your child.”

SOURCES: Emma Keicher, applied behavior analyst, Thompson Center for Autism and Neurodevelopmental Disorders, University of Missouri, Columbia; Jack Scott, PhD, executive director, Center for Autism and Related Disabilities, and associate professor, department of special education, Florida Atlantic University, Boca Raton; Behavioral analysis in practice, April 2022, online

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