An Assistance dog is trained to work with a child with autism and their family. The primary function of an assistance dog is safety.
Assistance dogs are like moving anchors and security blankets for children with Autism. Each Assistance Dog wears a special blue jacket, which has a small handle attached. There is a belt attached to the child’s waist and short lead attaching the child to the dog. The parent, using an extended lead from behind or the side, then controls both the child and the dog. The dog responds to the verbal cues from the parent who controls speed and direction.
Each family will gain something different from the dog; as all dogs, children and families are very different. The children have different sensitivities’ and the dogs are prepared and matched to each child depending on their specific needs.
For example, if we are working with a child who likes body contact, they may love the feel of the dog's coat, so then we need to match them to a dog who likes that contact. However, that same child may not like the wetness of the tongue, so we must make sure we do not match them to a dog that tends to lick a lot.
We may be working with a child with hearing sensitivity. Hearing sensitivity can be triggered by many sounds in our environment. A good example is the noise in a supermarket. There is a buzzing sound from the fridge freezers that most of us do not pay any heed to, but when you turn down an aisle with a row of fridge/freezers it can be extremely intense for a child with autism. The response is usually either fight or flight. The child may try to run away from the situation or get very upset and drop to the ground. In most cases, the children visually do not look like they have a disability so it can be very tough on the parents and siblings to have everyone staring at them, even tutting or commenting on their parenting.
In this situation the dog lets the public know that they are with a child with special needs.
Assistance dogs need to be well behaved in public, relaxed and able to take instruction.
They also need to be very tolerant of intense behaviours. They are trained to wear a jacket, walk on either side of the handler, tolerate a child being attached and follow cues such as forward, left, right and wait. They are trained to stop a few feet back from the kerb edge, for the safety of children that may bolt across roads, and also not to cross a road without a "forward" cue from their handler. In this case the handler is always an adult and not the child. Assistance Dogs are extra work and responsibility but can have huge benefits to the family unit and the child with autism.