April is Autism Awareness month. Things typically kick off each year on April 2nd, recognized as World Autism Awareness Day. Individuals and organizations around the world pledge to increase global understanding and acceptance of those with ASD.
According to AutismSpeaks.org, autism, also referred to as autism spectrum disorder (ASD), is a wide range of conditions identified by challenges with repetitive behaviors, social skills, speech and nonverbal communication. Often times, other health issues like sensory sensitivities and mental health challenges occur alongside ASD. Being a disorder with a spectrum, each individual with autism has their own strengths and challenges. With a broad range of impacts, some individuals with autism may need daily assistance, while others are very independent.
W.A.G.S. 4 Kids not only trains service dogs for children with mobility disabilities, but also trains service dogs for developmental disabilities like ASD. In fact, about 90% of the dogs we train and place are ASD service dogs. No two journeys of children with ASD are exactly alike, and many W.A.G.S. 4 Kids families and children have shared how their lives have been impacted.
1. Reported by the Centers for Disease Control, 1 in 59 children is diagnosed with ASD, and it is more prevalent in boys than girls.
In the fall of 2015 we met a family that was in the minority of those on the Autism Spectrum as they have a daughter, Cassidy, who was diagnosed with autism at the age of two. Today, 1 in 151 girls will be diagnosed with ASD while 1 in 37 boys will be diagnosed, according to the CDC.
Cassidy was also non-verbal. Her family was seeking a service dog to help Cassidy promote verbal communication and help to build relationship skills she was lacking at the time. Cassidy also struggled with anxiety, which is common among those on the spectrum. A service dog could be her focus among the chaos.
Autism service dog Mercy was partnered with Cassidy, and the rest was history.
“Mercy's whole demeanor and [her ability to do] tasks [on command] like ‘cuddle’ and ‘love’ have given Cassidy a new calm and focus in a once somewhat chaotic world,” said Cassidy’s mom, Chris. “Mercy really lives up to her namesake. She's been a blessing."
The task “cuddle” provides comfort and full-body closeness for the child. The service dog will lie on the floor, on its side, his back rolled into the belly of the child with the child cuddling behind it. The “love” command is also for comfort, with the dog getting attention as a reward. The “love” command can be sitting or standing, with the service dog placing its head on the child’s lap. The pressure and closeness of these positions provide physical contact and promote comfort and calmness, benefiting many W.A.G.S. 4 Kids children on the Autism Spectrum.
2. More than half of children with autism have chronic sleep problems.
We met 5-year-old Jacob in 2016. Just before his second birthday, he was diagnosed with “regressive” autism. After Jacob’s autism diagnosis, his speech continued to decline and he was struggling with walking and eating. He was also having trouble sleeping through the night on his own. His dad, Jason, explained that Jacob usually only slept 2-3 hours each night and would be dependent on sleeping with his mom for comfort.
Autism service dog Ryken was placed with Jacob in March 2018, and the family saw immediate results of what these dogs can do for their kids in need.
“Actually, the first night we got Ryken, Jacob slept in his own bed, slept with the dog in the room, and slept through the night,” Jason said. “Once we got Ryken, he started sleeping the normal 8 to 9 to 10 hours sometimes.”
Ryken being present in Jacob’s room at night while he sleeps provides constant connection and touch, as well as helping to support bedtime rituals. Jason explained that sleeping better at night improved Jacob’s behavior during the day, while giving himself and his wife the opportunity for a better night’s sleep as well. He explained that Jacob still has nights where he only sleeps for a few hours, but overall there has been drastic improvement for Jacob since Ryken was placed with the family.
3. Parents who have a child with ASD have a 2 to 18 percent chance of having another child who is also affected.
In August 2017 we were introduced to Robbie and his story. Robbie is the oldest of three, and was diagnosed with autism around age 4. Robbie struggles with speech and language, as well as anxiety when it comes to crowds and loud noises. In certain situations, he displays STIM behaviors, sometimes covering his ears, moaning and rocking.
Robbie’s brother was also diagnosed with autism, and service dog Cupcake (known to the family as CeeCee) has helped both of them improve in many ways.
“I’ve got two autistic boys,” said Dad Jonathan. “[Having a service dog] allowed us to go places where we couldn’t previously go. It has just improved our lives to no end.”
One of those places the entire family was able to go was Cedar Point – an often noisy, crowded place. A place where Robbie normally would have encountered some obstacles.
“We went on a mini family vacation to Cedar Point because we wanted to test and see how much of the stimulus would affect the kids and we wanted to see whether or not CeeCee would help us there,” Jonathan recalled. “We had an absolutely wonderful time. It allows us to do the things that other families do.”
W.A.G.S. 4 Kids’ autism service dogs are trained to perform tasks prompting STIM behavior interruption. This command is known as “bump,” in which the dog has physical contact with the child to interrupt STIM behaviors. In Robbie’s case, these commands can help when he begins to feel overwhelmed in public places.
4. As many as one-third of people with autism have epilepsy.
In 2016, 15-year-old Devon was having difficulties initiating interactions with other people because of his autism and epilepsy diagnosis.
His mom, Colleen, explained that Devon often had a fear of engaging in activities because of his seizure disorder. As a triplet, Devon’s other brothers, not affected by ASD, were preparing to finish high school and head off to college. Colleen wanted Devon to gain independence and have companionship once his brothers went their own ways. These factors triggered the family’s interest in a service dog.
Devon was partnered with service dog Dylan in the spring of 2018 and the family noticed great improvement in Devon’s independence and medical issues.
“Devon has been seizure free since Dylan has joined our family,” Colleen said in November 2018. “He keeps his room clean without reminders, takes care of personal hygiene and makes snacks without asking for assistance. We recently moved to a new home and Devon was a huge help. He not only packed his boxes, but helped with all the other packing. He moved boxes, even those too heavy for Mom, and helped with all the unpacking.”
With the help of his sidekick Dylan, Devon has gained independence that he can rely on when his brothers leave for college, which was a goal not only for Devon but for his family as well.
5. Nearly 75% of children with autism between the ages of 6 and 15 have been bullied.
W.A.G.S. 4 Kids firmly believes in “inclusion always, and in all ways.” Growing up in general can be tough, but for children with disabilities it can be even more difficult to meet friends and maintain relationships.
For many of the W.A.G.S. children on the Autism Spectrum, having their service dog helps them to make friends. Instead of seeing someone with a disability, the kids see someone with a dog and are less reluctant to approach them. These service dogs are a medical necessity, but also aide in forging friendships and starting conversations for their other classmates.
It’s for kids like Cassidy, Jacob, Robbie, and Devon – along with other past, present and future W.A.G.S. 4 Kids children – that we promote education, understanding, and awareness of those living with Autism Spectrum Disorder. We Light It Up Blue in April for Autism Awareness, because “Autism is not a disability, it’s a different ability” – Stuart Duncan.
If you’d like to help a child like Cassidy, Jacob, Robbie, and Devon come one step closer to receiving their autism service dog, please click below to donate.
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