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Tasks for Autism Service Dogs

When considering what kinds of tasks to teach a service dog for an Autistic person, it is important not to get hung up on the concept of an all-purpose 'Autism service dog' but rather a dog specifically trained to mitigate the individual problems that a specific person experiences as a result of Autism. Autism is a spectrum disorder, and no two Autistic people will have precisely the same difficulties or strengths. Also, because Autism is a developmental disability, the way in which it affects the person will change over time, most noticeably in childhood and adolescence, but in adulthood as well. Autism may be frequently diagnosed in childhood, but it is a lifelong neurological condition.
While Autism itself is no longer considered to be a psychiatric disability, it is a neurological disability that affects the way a person thinks and processes sensory information. Many Autistic people also have dyspraxia, which affects both fine motor and gross motor skills. Thus, people familiar with other types of service dogs will recognize tasks that are frequently taught to dogs trained to assist those with visual, hearing, mobility, and psychiatric disabilities. Remember, the dog is there to help the person, not the disability. It is also important to remember that a dog should not necessarily be the first choice in mitigating a difficulty that a person has, nor is it usually the easiest, best, cheapest, or most flexible solution. Generally, the purpose of a service animal for any disability is to replace dependence on human assistance, not on properly used assistive technology.

Sometimes alarms and timers alone are not sufficient for an Autistic person who has trouble processing sensory information or who becomes panicked in emergency situations. For example, a person may have difficulty in responding to a traditional alarm clock. For most people, simply getting a louder alarm clock, or a bed-shaking alarm clock such as those used by the deaf and hard of hearing may be sufficient. If these technological solutions do not work, a dog may be taught to respond to the sound of the alarm by touching the handler, by removing the blankets from the bed, or perhaps by switching on the light. It is possible to train a dog to wake a person at a specific time of day, however this limits the handler to only getting up at that time of day, which is problematic when one considers travel to different time zones, daylight saving time changes, waking from naps or schedule changes due to changes in a person's job or work schedule. A dog may also be trained to lead a person to other kinds of alarms, such as timed pill dispensers or kitchen timers--some Autistic people may become distracted while cooking and forget that something is cooking, resulting in ruined food or possibly a fire. Another situation in which a dog may be trained to respond to an alarm is in the case of a smoke alarm. Many Autistic people are sensitive to loud noises and may become disoriented. A dog can be trained to respond to the alarm by waking the person if the alarm goes off when the person is asleep, and once the person is awake, leading the person out of the building.

Another group of tasks which are related to the previously mentioned task of leading the handler out of the building in response to a smoke alarm are the leading and guiding tasks. It is important to remember that dogs are not Lassie or Rin Tin Tin, they have limited abilities, they are not human beings in fur coats, and one must remember the limitations of a dog's senses and mental ability. With guide dogs for the blind, the dog's job is to lead the handler around obstacles in the handler's path, stop at doorways, curbs, stairs, and drop-offs, and occasionally to find specific types of objects such as doors and staircases. The dog is told when to turn right, turn left, or keep going straight ahead by the handler. At all times, the handler must be aware of the surroundings and know where the team is and where they are going. Although dogs can become habituated to familiar routes (this is known as 'patterning' in the guide dog world) and may not need the handler to direct every turn, it is not reasonable to assume that a dog can learn a large number of routes on autopilot. The dog is there to provide information to the handler, and the handler makes the decisions on what to do about that information. The same should be true of a dog partnered with an Autistic person who has difficulty processing spatial information and may have trouble navigating through space using visual information. Another type of guide work is really a form of tracking, such as is used by search and rescue dogs. A dog may learn to back-track on the scent trail of the team to get the team to the exit of a building, or perhaps to lead the team back to a familiar place should the team get lost while out walking.

Another concern some Autistic people have is remembering to bring vital objects with them when they leave the home, such as shoes or other clothing items, keys, wallet, etc. There are two ways to accomplish this. If a person uses checklists as a management technique, but has difficulty remembering to use the checklists themselves, the dog can direct them to the checklist if it is placed in a prominent place. The dog may also fetch the objects if they are kept in the same general area, and direct the handler to the objects before exiting. The dog could be taught to find and retrieve the objects by scent, although this is limited to objects that have a distinctive odor and if the object was left in an area that is accessible to the dog.

Previously discussed in this document was responding to the sound of alarms. Other sound response work may also benefit an Autistic person. The dog may be taught to signal the handler to the sound of the handler's name if the handler has auditory processing difficulties, by a tactile signal and by looking in the direction from which the sound came so that the handler knows who is trying to get his or her attention. The dog may also be taught to respond to the sound of a doorbell, telephone, etc. and lead the handler to the source of the sound.

A dog may also be taught to signal the handler of specific self-stimulatory repetitive behaviors ('stimming'), particularly if the behavior is physically harmful or may cause extreme social problems. It is important to understand that most self-stimulatory behavior has a specific cause and that the extinction of all stimming may be impossible or even harmful to the well-being of an Autistic person. Therefore, it is probably best to limit interruptions and signals that truly put the handler at risk of physical harm, such as head-banging or skin picking.

A dog may also be trained to find specific family members in the home, whether to summon assistance, or to carry notes, particularly if the handler has speech difficulties.