Families navigating through the world of autism spectrum disorder (ASD) face numerous obstacles throughout everyday life. Events and situations that many people take for granted, such as owning a pet or interacting with a domesticated animal, may pose great challenges. Animals, especially dogs, are an integral part of American culture. As individuals with autism learn to become a part of their community and have various social experiences, it is important to expose them to everyday situations.
REED Academy, a non-profit school located in Oakland, NJ, is doing just that. Myrtle, the school’s new service dog, helps to provide children and teenagers with autism with a loveable, friendly companion each day at school. Myrtle is a 2-year-old female yellow lab who has gone through extensive training to become a service dog. She came into the school through a partnership developed with Guiding Eyes for the Blind. Guiding Eyes is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization that provides guide dogs to people with vision loss, as well as service dogs for children with autism. This partnership has led to creating a whole new experience for individuals with autism within a school setting.
Myrtle’s role as a service dog helps to provide natural reward opportunities for the students at REED Academy. As you walk the halls, you can see staff and students playing and interacting with her on a regular basis. Through the methods of applied behavior analysis (ABA), various skills are taught to help acclimate students to animals they may encounter in homes or community settings. Students are learning to tolerate the presence of a dog and interact with it appropriately. Students are also provided with the opportunity to learn important safety skills. These safety skills may include requesting permission to approach or pet a dog, as well as the proper technique for physically interacting with an animal. Learning these safety skills is an important way to ensure that students have successful and positive interactions with animals.
Students with autism often have challenges with communication, and Myrtle provides additional opportunities to practice language and socialization skills. Students are able to describe interactions with Myrtle, recall experiences with Myrtle, and transfer their time with her into a daily journal that they are able to share with their families. Some students are also learning to care for an animal. Each day, Myrtle needs to be walked, fed, and groomed. These responsibilities can be taught to students and become integrated into their daily routines. The students of REED Academy are gaining insight into an experience to which they might not have otherwise had regular exposure. Myrtle’s presence is uplifting and helps to provide a positive atmosphere with her calm demeanor, friendly nature, and youthful spirit.
Having a service dog within a school setting has been a tremendous experience for the children and staff alike. Families are excited about the new learning opportunities and companionship that their children will now be afforded. A service dog for children with autism can provide a unique and enjoyable learning experience that betters the school community as a whole.
Kelli Fowler is a Board Certified Behavior Analyst who holds a Master of Arts of Special Education and has been servicing individuals with autism for over 10 years. Her expertise extends from early intervention to age 21, and she has developed several programs, including home consultation, social skills groups, and transition programming. Kelli has been dedicated to helping individuals with autism and their families live happy and fulfilling lives by providing world-class autism intervention services.
This article was featured in Issue 64 – Teaching the Skills Your ASD Child Needs