Is a Therapy Dog Right for Your Child with Autism?
posted: Tuesday, July 7, 2020 | CATEGORIES: autism therapy dog

uest Blog by Barry Shechter of Dogdigz.com

Autism or autism spectrum disorder is a set of conditions with symptoms such as repetitive behaviors, challenges in communication and social skills, sleep disorders, and sensory sensitivities. For many children, the signs of autism begin to become apparent by the age of two or three. Sometimes autism developmental delays may lead to an even earlier diagnosis.

There are varying degrees of autism, and while there is no cure, there are many therapies, tools, and interventions that may be helpful. One option families explore is bringing an autism therapy dog into their family. While there can be benefits, a therapy dog may not be the right fit for every child or family.

What is a Therapy Dog?

Sometimes “therapy dog” is used as a blanket term, but there are differences between service dogs and therapy dogs. There is also a third category to be aware of, which is a companion dog.

Therapy Dogs

A therapy dog is trained to provide comfort in a therapeutic context. Settings you may see therapy dogs include nursing homes, health care, and mental health facilities, and hospitals. Sometimes a therapy dog can help a patient overcome a stressful or traumatic procedure, or they might help with occupational or physical therapy.

Outside of medical settings or an institutional environment, a therapy dog is an option for people with autism because they can help encourage social interaction as well as being calming. A lot of therapy dogs have specialized training, but not all. Certain agencies are accredited to connect people with therapy dogs, such as the Assistance Dogs International organization.

Therapy dogs don’t have federally-mandated access to public places, and if you opt for a therapy dog for your child it’s important that you take the time to find the right match not only for your child but for your family.  If you work with a specialized agency they can help you do this. When a family does decide to bring in a therapy dog, it can take up to two years to go through the process which often includes home visits and specialized training.

Companion Dogs

A companion dog is a specially trained pet that can be calming for someone with autism. These dogs are meant to help provide not just a sense of comfort, but they can also help a child with autism get more social interaction and learn the responsibilities that come with caring for the dog. Companion dogs are often golden retrievers, Labradors and Labradoodles because these breeds tend to be very calm and intelligent.

If you adopt a companion dog from a rescue setting, you have to be cautious about the dog’s history. It’s important to learn more about a dog’s history before bringing it into your home to reduce the likelihood of a bad reaction when the dog feels scared or threatened.

Service Dogs

Service dogs are in a separate category because these dogs receive special training and certification. They help someone with disabilities perform functions in their daily life. Under the Americans with Disabilities Act, a person can legally bring their service dog in all public spaces, including restaurants.

Service dogs usually wear a vest or another form of identification, so it’s apparent they are working and shouldn’t be disturbed. A service dog is uniquely trained to meet the needs of the person it will be helping. An autism service dog might help a child with anxiety when they go to school or in public, for example. There are even service dogs that can interrupt self-harming behaviors or serious emotional situations like panic attacks. A service dog that’s not properly trained can be dangerous, so when a family is considering a service dog, they should only work with an accredited agency.

What Type of Dog Is Needed in Specific Circumstances?

The following are example situations and the type of dog that would be right for each.

  • If someone has anxiety while flying or in situations such as going to doctor’s appointments, an emotional support dog would be the right fit.
  • If a child is experiencing anxiety at school, a therapy dog would be needed.
  • An emotional support dog provides companionship for one person in their daily activities.
  • For autism, a service dog may be the best fit.

How Can a Therapy Dog Help a Child with Autism?

Trained dogs may have therapeutic benefits for children with autism, according to research.

For example, one study of 22 children found that when a dog was present in a therapy session, the children were more socially engaged and talked more. In another study, when there was a dog included in a therapy session, children were less aggressive and smiled more. In two other studies recently received by researchers, parents said their children with autism tended to behave better and be more attentive after they got a service dog.

Specific ways a therapy dog might help a child with autism include:

  • Children who have autism often deal with emotional outbursts. A therapy dog can help a child stay calmer in these situations or help prevent these scenarios.
  • Repetitive motions and behaviors are common symptoms of autism, but a trained therapy dog may help reduce these behaviors. Some therapy dogs are trained to recognize when these symptoms will start, and they can then interrupt them.
  • Some autistic children are prone to wandering off, and a dog may bark to let family members know if this is happening.
  • Specifically trained therapy dogs may be able to play “games” with an autistic child to help with sensory processing. For example, games could include tug of war or hide and seek.
  • Therapy dogs can help a child with autism be more confident to engage with their environment.
  • Nonverbal children may increase how much they speak with their therapy dog is present.
  • A therapy dog or companion dog provides friendship and love and can help combat loneliness a child might feel.
  • Having a dog with them might help a child sleep better.
  • Having a dog can create a sense of consistency, even when there are a lot of changes in a child’s environment.

Is a Therapy Dog Right for Your Child?

While there are many possible benefits of bringing a dog into your home, it’s not the right option for every family.

Considerations to keep in mind include:

  • Does your child have sensory issues that could be triggered by a dog? For example, might a dog’s wiry fur be triggering for your child? What about barking? Could barking be disturbing to your child?
  • How much can you afford to pay? If you want a true therapy or service dog, extensive training is necessary. According to Autism Service Dogs of America, the costs can be more than $10,000. This doesn’t mean that all dogs will cost this much, and you can also opt for a well-trained comfort dog rather than a specifically trained service or therapy dog.
  • What are your child’s needs in particular? What benefits do you hope a dog will bring to your child’s life?
  • Are you ready to take on the responsibility of a dog? Whether it’s a therapy dog or not, dogs still come with a lot of responsibility. If you already have an autistic child and other members in your family you’re taking care of, can you take on a dog? There will be more cleaning, daily walks, and feeding needed, as well as vet visits.
  • If you are getting a therapy dog, be aware that it will require certain behavioral training and living conditions that are different from family dogs.

When choosing a dog for your child with autism, the following are important factors:

  • What is the temperament of the dog? You want a dog that is calm but also sociable.
  • Your dog must be easy to train and intelligent. The hope is that your child will also be giving commands.
  • High energy dogs don’t tend to be the best match for children with autism.

Organizations That Can Help

If you’d like to explore the options for your family to find a dog, the following organizations can help:

  • 4 Paws for Ability is a nonprofit that trains and places task-trained service dogs. 4 Paws for Ability can help your autistic child become more independent, and 4 Paws for Ability also educates the public about the use of service dogs in public places
  • Autism Service Dogs of America provide dogs that serve as an emotional anchor for children with autism. The group was founded in 2002 and they train each service dog for the individual needs of a family they’re placed with.
  • Alliance of Therapy Dogs is an international registry of certified therapy dog teams. They do testing, certification, registration, insurance, and support for members who volunteer with their dogs in certain activities assisted by animals.
  • NEADS Social Dog Program helps provide service dogs for children ages 8 to 16 with autism or other developmental disabilities. To be matched with one of their service dogs, you have to visit their NEADS campus in Princeton, MA for an intake interview and in-person evaluation.
  • SDWR offers autism service dog grants. Their grants help provide recipients with the funds they’ll need to train an autism service dog, and grant amounts range from $25,000 to $7,500.

Summing Up

A support or service dog might be a good part of your autistic child’s daily life and can be therapeutic for them. Before you commit to bringing a dog into your family, think about your child’s individual needs and what role a dog will play in those. You should also make sure your family is ready for the significant responsibility of a new dog.

Original post available here.

Father’s Day: Why Special Needs Dads Need Extra Celebrating
posted: Friday, June 19, 2020 | CATEGORIES: Father's Day

Special guest blog by Kim Caifano, writer, speaker, life coach, and special needs mom. Learn more about Kim at kimcaifano.com

“I walk around like everything is fine. But deep down, inside my shoe, my sock is sliding off.”

Oh, how that quote (anonymous) penetrated my heart. It immediately made me think of dads of special needs children. For these dear men carry burdens that few people will ever understand or even begin to comprehend. This article shares why they need some EXTRA celebrating this Father’s Day. 

My husband and I have had the pleasure of doing life with some fantastic parents of special needs children. Some who have children with Autism or Aspergers and others who handle extreme cases of kids who are wheelchair-bound and in diapers due to a genetic disorder.

Each child’s condition varies, but I observe there is a lot of common ground in the role that I see the dads play. 

I have watched firsthand as my friend has gotten pulled out of a church services time and again because Kids Ministry paged. Their autistic daughter was simply having a tough day. So he would leave service and sit by her side in the lobby as she’d wear her pink headphones and settle down with some iPad time.  

I’ve seen our handyman friend adapt his house to accommodate not one but two children who slowly lost the ability to walk and ultimately needed wheelchairs, a ramp built, a special hook to hang the portable bathtub in the bathroom, and more. 

I’ve seen a husband with a fire in his belly about the lack of funding for research for his children’s conditions. He ultimately took his fight all the way to Washington to ensure more awareness was made for his children’s condition and the need for more research and money. 

I’ve watched a close friend handle medical bills and insurance and take his son to countless doctor and therapy appointments.

Any special needs parent needs to be strong. But I would dare say it is the dads who, in particular ways, carry an extra measure of that pressure. OH MY, what must that be like? Because you know that these men’s hearts absolutely beat for their children and yet the expectation is that they need to be the strong ones. Steadfast and resolute. The anchor. For his child, for his wife, for their family. 

The world doesn’t allow much for weakness in men. We expect special needs fathers to parent just like the rest of the dads -with strength, boldness, consistency, financial provision. And yet their burden is so much greater. 

I imagine they often appear like they are walking just fine. But inside their shoe –  indeed – their sock just may be slipping off.

So I encourage you to give the special needs dad in your life a little extra love, patience, and recognition this Father’s Day: 

  • Acknowledge this extra burden. Simply reading this article to him might make him feel recognized.
  • If you’re the spouse and have nothing left to give – no time or thought to even buy a Father’s Day card, here’s my gift to you. Simply print this and share it with him. 


This Father’s Day I want to take a special moment and recognize your unique role as a special needs father. It is an expanded role, and it requires MUCH of you. 

Thank you for all that you do – all of the typical dad stuff of going to work and taking kids to ballgames and teacher conferences and house projects. But on top of it – dealing with everything that our child requires. Thank you for always remembering to pack the backpack of headphones and fidget toys. Thanks for leaving the major league baseball game that one time and the party that other time and the other five dozen events to be with our child. Thanks for making special accommodations in our house. Thanks for handling extra bills and insurance issues. Thanks for longer tuck-ins at night. Thanks for being there for ME when I haven’t been able to handle it anymore or have been in a terrible mood or have needed to vent or cry or crumble.

I do love and appreciate you. I often just don’t have it in me to verbalize it. I recognize it today and want to say I am thankful for you. 


Author’s Note: To all of you special needs dads out there: you are a group of unsung heroes. May you have a Father’s Day where you feel seen, loved, and valued for everything that you are and do. Cheers to you. -Kim

Follow Kim Caifano on Instagram and Facebook @kcaifano and read her latest writings at kimcaifano.comKim also writes a weekly newsletter “You’re In Good Company” and you can subscribe here.

Celebrating Individuality
posted: Friday, May 15, 2020 | CATEGORIES: ABA Therapy autism

Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) is widely recognized as the gold standard therapy for autism. More than 600 scientific studies have proven its effectiveness in helping children on
the spectrum learn age-appropriate behavior, communication, and social skills.

ABA is also the only autism treatment endorsed by the U.S. Surgeon General and the American Academy of Pediatrics.

Yet parents looking into ABA will quickly find adults with autism who criticize their childhood experiences with it. Common complaints include ABA using punishment, teaching every child the same skills regardless of his or her needs, not providing real-life learning, and trying to make children on the spectrum seem “normal.”

Parents are understandably concerned about these charges. But parents should also know that ABA has changed dramatically in the last 15 years. Yesterday’s ABA therapy is not today’s reality.

In the past, ABA was a standardized program designed to teach each child the same skills. Today, the goal is to help each child achieve their unique potential, learn age-appropriate behaviors, and provide tools for lifelong learning.

So what has really changed between the “old” and “new” ABA? The most important differences include an emphasis on positive reinforcement, customized therapy programs, broad-based learning, and celebrating individuality.

Positive Reinforcement, Not Punishment

When ABA was adapted for autism in the 1980s, it used a small punishment for wrong answers, such as a light slap on the thigh. Today, ABA primarily uses rewards to encourage desirable behaviors and replace challenging behaviors.

For example, many kids with autism have a hard time sitting for a meal. They would rather wander and nibble. In the past, a therapist might have forced a child to stay in his chair by blocking him in. The child learned to sit at the table, but he also associated it with a bad experience.

Today’s approach is different. An ABA therapist might ask a child to sit at the table for a short time and reward success by letting him get up and graze. Once the child can do this, the therapist will add another small step such as sitting to eat a few bites of food, and then let the child wander. Over time, he learns to eat a meal at the table and associates it with rewards.

The outcome is the same: The child can join the family for a meal. But there’s a huge contrast in how that is taught today versus yesterday. The emphasis on positive reinforcement means kids learn that mastering new skills is fun and rewarding.

A New Take on Negative Consequences

The emphasis on rewards doesn’t mean today’s ABA never uses punishment. However, punishment usually involves taking away something a child finds desirable and is generally reserved for serious or risky behavior.

A child who is aggressive towards her siblings can be dangerous, especially as she gets older. A sticker chart that combines rewards and consequences is a typical way to change this behavior.

A therapist first teaches the child desirable behaviors, such as walking away when she is angry, doing something nice for a sibling, and not hitting or kicking. The child earns a sticker every time she does one of these, and a number of stickers can be traded for a toy, screen time, or other reward.

If the child is mean to a sibling or hits, she loses one or more stickers. This is punishment, because it takes away something the child has worked hard to earn. But the consequence is easily scaled to the behavior (for example, saying something mean results in losing one sticker, hitting results in losing two stickers, and so on). Equally important, a child’s challenging behavior doesn’t eliminate all of her success to date or the incentive to earn rewards by behaving better.

Customized Therapy for Unique Individuals

ABA therapy was originally established with standard programs. A therapist evaluated the age associated with a child’s abilities and taught every child the skills associated with that age. Every child was taught the same skills in the same order, regardless of the specific skills he or she needed to work on.

So the ABA program for an 8-year-old who could name shapes but not dress himself was identical to the program for an 8-year-old who could eat a meal but couldn’t ask for what she wanted and had frequent meltdowns as a result.

Today, ABA is customized for each child. The program is tailored to the child’s skills, needs, and challenges, as well as the family’s priorities. The therapy for a child who can’t get dressed will focus on daily living activities. It will use small steps and rewards to teach the child to put on underwear, then socks, a shirt, pants, and shoes until he can dress himself.

Therapy for a child who can’t communicate might include teaching the child to say the names of favorite items or use pictures to ask for what she wants. As the child learns to communicate, she’ll be less frustrated and meltdown less often.

From Table Training to Real Life Learning

In the past, most ABA therapy took place sitting at a table using flash cards. Not today. The emphasis is on teaching children behaviors where and when they need to use them.

If a child is learning colors, the therapy might start at the table, then quickly move to identifying colors around the house, in the yard, and on the street. When a child is learning to brush his teeth as part of the morning and bedtime routines, the therapist will come to the home in the morning and evening until the child can brush his teeth at the right times. The hallmark of high-quality ABA is that it doesn’t look like work. A parent watching a session will notice the structure, but the activities should look like whatever skill the child is working on, be it getting dressed, taking turns, eating a snack, or going to the doctor.

ABA therapy today also strives for “generalization,” which means teaching children to use a skill beyond the setting where they learn it. For example, a child should be able to put on her coat and mittens at home and at school.

In addition, therapists work closely with parents, teaching the basics of ABA so parents can reinforce the child’s progress, and deal with new behaviors and situations as they occur. Children with autism learn the age-appropriate skills they need for everyday life, and how to use them in familiar and new situations. This requires more flexible therapy and may take longer, but it gives children the foundation for a lifetime of success.

Celebrating Individuality

Some adults who had ABA as children say the therapy tried to make them act like neurotypical kids. Today’s emphasis is teaching children appropriate behaviors for various places.

Many children on the spectrum flap their arms, spin, or shout when they get excited. This is fine at home, but it can be disruptive in public. In the past, ABA tried to teach a child to never engage in these behaviors so he or she looked like other kids.

Today, a therapist may teach a child that it’s fine to spin or scream at home, but not at the supermarket or library. Then the therapist will help a child learn a replacement behavior that accomplishes the same function, such as lightly tapping his or her leg.

The message is that the child is welcome to express happiness and excitement in his or her unique way, but that there are different ways to express those feelings in different places. Parents constantly shape children’s behavior in this way, regardless of whether the children have autism. ABA provides the additional help children on the spectrum often need to learn this lesson.

Happy Kids, Happy Parents

ABA therapy has helped countless children with autism learn age-appropriate behavior, communication, and social skills. Today’s ABA uses customized therapy programs and positive rewards to celebrate each child’s unique personality and teach skills for life-long learning.

How kids and parents respond to ABA shows how much has changed. Kids often run to the door when their therapist arrives, excited to start a session. Many parents talk about the joy of seeing their child having fun in therapy, communicating more clearly, trying new experiences, and making friends.

No one therapy is right for every child with autism, and that includes ABA. Parents who understand how much ABA has changed are best equipped to decide what role ABA should play in helping their child achieve his or her greatest potential.

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