When I set out to do this series, I knew I wanted to talk about service dogs for autism. But where to look? Do you ever feel like picking up a book, but you don’t want to take a chance on something new, so you go to your favorite and read it again? That’s kind of how I felt about how to post about this. So, I asked a fellow blogger, one who has first hand experience in not only handling a service dog, but training the dog as well, to write a post about her experiences. This is a woman I have come to know through Blogger and she’s the reason I wanted to know more about autism. She’s pretty incredible, in my opinion, and I really appreciate her writing this! So without further adieu, here’s Katrin!
I am an autistic adult partnered with a service dog since 2003. In an effort to cover this topic in her monthly posts on autism, Ro asked me if I would guest post for her and I willingly agreed. I regularly write on my own blog By My Side http://asdbymyside.blogspot.com about my adventures with James (my service dog), Niche and Monty (my 2 pet dogs).
First I guess a little background, I have been training dogs since 1996, with that lifestyle as my profession since 2003. Mostly I train people to teach their dogs in agility, obedience, basic manners, behavior modification for agression problems and service work. I was diagnosed with autism when I was 19, at which point James was about 10 months old. I began formally training him as my assistance dog at that time and he graduated to full fledge service work in August 2003. Since then James and I have been partners and he is an invaluable companion to me. On May 1st of this year James will be 8 years old, and so I have begun the search for a new puppy to fill his rather large shoes when it comes time for James to retire. In this post I will talk about the various things James does for me.
One thing I would like to mention is just as any other service or guide dog, service dogs for those with autism must be task trained to mitigate the person’s disability. The Department of Justice has ruled on many occasions that dogs solely for emotional support, well being or companionship are not service dogs. So just like any other task trained service dog, James has behaviors he has been formally taught to perform for me that make it easier for me to live independently and go about my daily life. With James’ assistance I am able to live on my own and do every day things that other people take for granted such as going grocery shopping, going to various appointments, going to work, etc.
The most easily recognizable task James does for me in public is guide work. Just like a guide dog for a visually impaired person, James leads me around obstacles, stops at curbs, indicates stairs, is trained in intelligent disobedience at streets and all of the various behaviors that are wrapped into the term “guide work.” The reason I need this type of task in a service dog is due to a Sensory Processing Disorder that comes in parcle with my autism diagnosis. My two most affected senses are my vision and hearing with some tactile. I also have problems with my proprioception and ability to properly tell where my body parts are in space. This means that I will walk into things or not properly judge how far away say a moving car is from me and put myself in potentially dangerous situations.
Also because of my sensory processing disorder, I have a tendency to get overstimulated at a much faster rate than most neurotypical people. When this happens my system goes into a type of shut down mode and stops accurately processing data. This leads to my getting disoriented and lost even in familiar places. So another thing I have taught James to do is find specific places we frequent often as well as our home and the last car we were in. James knows the names of about 12 local shops or businesses and the various routes on how to get there. He also has a very good memory and will tell me by turning his head in at the entrance if we are about to pass a place we have been to before and ask “Do you want to go here today?”
The sensory shut down mode is what prompted me to teach James a “follow” cue for following a person indicated until asked to stop. This way if we are in a very overstimulating environment such as Wal-Mart, I can tell James to “follow” a person in our party or a store employee and not spend all of my energy trying to stay focused on where I am in the environment and instead can spend energy on getting my shopping done and picking out the right items. I will also use this “follow” cue when we are in a new location that I don’t have the energy to learn right then such as traveling in a new part of a city or a large office building or doctor’s office so that I can save resources to use when I get to my destination and be more lucid then.
James has also been taught to find certain people that I spend a lot of time with by name, such as my parents, sisters and a few good friends. This is an important cue for me as if I am out with one of those people and get separated from them I get very anxious which causes me to process my environment in a less than satisfactory manner and I am then unable to find the person. So with James knowing some tracking skills and having the ability to search out those people, I am able to not stress about it as much and can get back in touch with them.
One thing that is very common to many autistic people, myself included is finding that heavy deep pressure is relaxing. I have a very difficult time relaxing in general, my nervous system is always on alert so anything that chills my system out and is not harmful is a good thing. All of my dogs in my life have been benifitial in this area as they become mini weighted blankets. James, for example, will drap his entire retriever sized 55# of body across my body if I am laying down on the couch which I find relaxing. Or at night on the bed, he will lay across my lower legs and feet, again which helps me relax.
Another task that my corgi, Monty, has been taught is to alert me to various alarms in the house such as the oven timer. The reason James was not taught this is that 1. Monty needed a job as he’s an active little dog and 2. By the time I got around to teaching it James was getting older and he told me he didn’t really care about the timers so he’d rather not. I couldn’t force him to do something he didn’t want to do and so I respected that and Monty was an apt pupil thence Monty learned that task for me. Again my needing this task goes back to my sensory processing disorder, the auditory part, and the fact that many times I tune out important noises and literally do not hear them go off until the food is now charcole in the oven.
As you can see from the tasks described above many are the same or similar to tasks that other types of working assistance dogs do for their handlers with other disabilities. Autism service dogs are fairly new as a group, but that doesn’t change what things they can do for their handlers. The reasons for an autistic handler’s needs may be different but dogs can still be trained to assist in a myriad of ways. I know for myself, having James and trusting his skills enables me to do a wide variety of things that previously I was not able to do on my own and that type of independence is something I thoroughly enjoy.
Thank you so much for your insight’s Katrin, and for letting us get a glimpse into your life with James!
For more information, and to read about how Monty was trained with timers, be sure to visit Katrin’s blog. She also has links to the type of breed that James is, a flatcoat. Katrin’s blog is one I always read and I get excited when she posts, so I’m so happy she agreed to be my first ever guest blogger!
I hope this helps you get a sense of what it’s like living with autism. I know for me, reading personal stories about any disability is so much more informative than clinical articles. We’re a little over half way through the month, and I have really enjoyed learning more about autism, and I hope you have too. Stay tuned; more to come.