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Autism Speaks

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Autism Service Dog Program Provides Support for our Community

We recently talked with Nicole Meadowcroft, President of Custom Canines Service Dog Academy, Inc to hear more about their Autism Service Dogs program. Custom Canines is a charitable nonprofit organization of volunteer professionals and individuals dedicated to raising, training and placing servce dogs with the community of mankind living with vast disabilities.

Can you tell us a little bit on how Custom Canines Service Dog Academy started and when the Autism Service Dog program began?

Custom Canines Service Dog Academy was born in 2007 with the desire to help disabled individuals lead the best quality of life that they can. We offer Guide Dogs and Visual Companion Dogs for individuals who are blind or have vision impairments. The Mobility Service Dogs we train and place assist individuals with physical disabilities and handicaps.

The Autism Service Dog program is our most recent, and by far our most requested type of service dog. We launched the Autism Service Dog program a few years ago, based on parents contacting us and expressing the need and desire to work with a service dog.  The program was piloted and developed from there. To date, we have successfully trained and placed 34 Autism Service Dog/child teams.  The dogs offer an enhanced level of independence while providing for the emotional, physical, and safety needs of the child.

What are some of the benefits of having an autism service dog for an individual on the spectrum from your experience?

The benefits are many and differ depending on the individual team. Our first and primary focus is to insure the safety and needs of the Autistic child are being met.  For some of our clients, the dogs have enabled their families to take their first vacation. They have opened the opportunity for the family to go shopping, or to take family excursions that would have previously been impossible due to over-stimulation, bolting/running, squealing/yelling, or any number of the other behaviors that typically limit social opportunities.  

The dogs provide a constant partner and companion that the child can bond with. In most cases, the dog sleeps with the child, allowing for less panic attacks from the child and resulting in a more restful nights sleep.  When working in public, most children are tethered to the dog, acting as an anchor for a child who may bolt or run away when over-stimulated.  The dogs are trained to become a canine version of a weighted sensory blanket to help the child when the inevitable meltdown occurs.  Some nonverbal clients have started to speak to the dog or tell others about their dog.  There are many benefits - these are just a few.  Each Custom Canine is specifically trained to enhance the unique needs of the child and household in which they are placed.

What are some of the factors you think families should consider when getting an autism service dog?

Some factors to consider when applying or searching for an Autism Service Dog would be the cost of the dog, allergies to dogs, monthly expense to maintain the health and wellness of a service dog and most importantly, how much training and instruction will you receive during the placement process.  Unfortunately, there are numerous organizations that take advantage of families who are desperate to enhance the lives of their children; they pay an enormous amount of money for the service dog and have little to no training.  At a minimum, all service dogs and their human partners should pass a Public Access Test with the organization they are working with. Another important factor to consider when thinking about a service dog would be to determine whether a service dog would be an enhancement or a hindrance to your situation.   

Are there other animals from your experience that have helped individuals on the spectrum? 

I am certain that there are other companion animals that can help individuals on the spectrum. However, ADA law only recognizes dogs and miniature horses as service animals that are granted public access.

In terms of resources, what are some steps that you took that you think would be beneficial for individuals who want to start autism service dog projects in their area? 

Reach out to your local Autism Society or Autism Speaks chapter/organization. They can be tremendously helpful when matching partners or people with similar experiences and interests. Starting an Autism Service Dog program will take time, money, dedication, and resources - but it can be done. The driving factor behind everything is the heart. The changes these dogs make in the lives of not only the child, but the entire family dynamic can be absolutely astounding.  Families of children with Autism will do anything to help their child adapt or thrive. These dogs can, and do help in many different ways. 

Become versed with your local state and federal service dog access laws.  Know what your rights are and what access you have with a service dog. A list of state service dog laws, along with the ADA law, can be found on our website at www.customcanines.org.

Anything else you'd like to share?

Do not be afraid to speak up and speak out. Parents of Autistic children are not alone and don’t have to feel isolated in their experiences or struggles. Our endeavors all begin with our heart. The desire to help others live the best, most enhanced, and independent life they are able to live.  Please visit our website to find out more about programs we offer and services that will enhance lives.