Autism Service Dogs and Sensory Processing Disorder Dogs change the lives of the families they work for. Like all Service Dog teams, every Autism Dog team is unique, since everyone has differing needs. However, some tasks occur more frequently than others. Learn more about some of the most common Autism Service Dog tasks now.
Common Autism Service Dog Tasks
Contact / Sensory Based Autism Service Dog Tasks
Assistance With Meltdowns / Overstimulation
Meltdowns commonly occur when a child with autism cannot process the amount of stimulation they’re receiving. They take many forms, but often result in tears, struggles, and other signs of distress. They are not tantrums. In addition to overstimulation, autism meltdowns can also happen when a child or adult with autism is unable to communicate needs, wants, or emotions.
A trained Autism Service Dog assists with meltdowns by serving as a calming and grounding point of contact, somewhat like an anchor. They do so via several means, including deep pressure stimulation, kinetic engagement, and tactile grounding, all of which are covered later in this article.
Repetitive Behavior / Stimming Interruption
Some people with autism use repetitive motions or behaviors, collectively called “stimming,” to self soothe or to express excitement or intense emotions. Stimming takes many forms, but commonly involves hand flapping, rocking, or similar movements. An Autism Service Dog can be trained to interrupt stimming while also providing another avenue for engagement.
Deep Pressure Stimulation
Deep Pressure Stimulation (DPS), Deep Pressure Therapy (DPT), and Deep Touch Pressure Therapy (DTP) are all names for the same thing — a type of firm tactile contact used to calm and soothe central nervous system overstimulation. It can take many forms, including weighted blankets, swaddling, firm stroking or hugs, compression, or the furry weight of a large breed Service Dog.
Many Autism Dogs provide deep pressure stimulation as a trained task. This helps soothe (or, for some people, even prevent) meltdowns, provide tactile grounding, and provides more dignity for the child or adult with autism than many alternative methods of DPS.
Many people with autism actively seek out certain types of sensory input, particularly of a kind they find comforting or soothing. An Autism Dog provides multiple outlets for kinetic engagement, either via direct or indirect means. Direct means include (gentle) fiddling with ears, fur, paws, etc. Indirect means include grooming or playing with equipment.
It’s important to remember that in order to be a Service Dog task, a behavior must be trained and cueable. Natural behaviors are not tasks. If it’s important that a particular Autism Dog be able to perform this task, then the candidate should be selected for high touch tolerance and enjoyment of contact.
Tactile grounding provides an “anchor” to help prevent environmental overstimulation. Sometimes this is passive and works via simple contact — a hand stroking soft, velvety ears or fingers gently wound into fur — and sometimes it’s active, with the dog purposeful providing contact or touch as a way to anchor their handler.
Active / Motion Based Autism Dog Tasks
Many people with autism, regardless of age, struggle with communication. Some remain nonverbal throughout their lifetime. Others rely on assistive devices. Those who are verbal may have periods where they’re unable to speak. An Autism Service Dog can serve as a messenger, either by carrying written messages or retrieving an assistive tablet for their handler on cue.
Many people with autism, especially children, “bolt” or “run” when overwhelmed by the environment. They try to escape to an area with lower levels of sensory input. If unable to do so, a sensory meltdown may occur. Bolting and running often leads to extremely unsafe situations. Commonly, those who engage in the behavior are unable to monitor the environment for safety as they flee.
Tethering is a highly controversial, but common, Autism Dog task that utilizes an extra large or giant breed dog as a literal, physical anchor to keep a child with autism from running away. Tether and anchor trained dogs wear an ergonomic harness to help keep them safe and so does the child. The child and dog remain connected while the dog is working. If the dog feels pressure on the harness, the dog lays down. Because of the dog’s size, the child cannot move the dog, and thus cannot run away.
Many Autism Dogs undergo formal tracking training. This training allows them to footstep track a child or adult who has bolted or run away from their point of origin to wherever they are now. If a child is particularly prone to running away, especially in urban or highly dangerous environments, a tracking dog can allow their family to find them more quickly, especially compared to other methods.
“Blocking” is another controversial, but common, Autism Dog task. It involves a large, extra large, or giant breed dog physically standing in front of someone with autism who is trying to run out of an open door or gate. The dog “blocks” them from going through the opening.
Occupational Therapy / Other Autism Service Dog Tasks
As mentioned earlier, communication often proves difficult, especially in emergency situations. An autism dog can assist by retrieving a packet of information to give to EMS or by wearing patches that communicate vital information.
Many people with autism find comfort in routines and familiarity. An Autism Service Dog assists with providing a comforting routine, regardless of what’s happening around them. The dog needs daily care. As such, they can offer a passive way to form a “backbone” routine which the rest of the day fits around.