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 an autistic child 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 an autistic child or adult 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 Reduction
Some autistic people 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 reduce stimming by 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 autistic child or adult than many alternative methods of DPS.
Many autistic people 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 autistic people, 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 autistic people, 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 an autistic child 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 an autistic person 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 autistic people 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.
Noneofyourbusiness October 24, 2021
Stimming should NEVER be interrupted as it’s essential for AUTISTIC PEOPLE (not “people with autism”) to self regulate. Service dogs are meant to help us and shouldnt be trained to harm us!! This article is full of misinformation.
Anything Pawsable Staff December 15, 2021
Hi! Thank you for your feedback. Our experience has been that many people with disabilites prefer identity-first language. Based on your comment we did some research on language preferences in the autistic community and have updated the article. We found this post to be very helpful: https://autisticadvocacy.org/about-asan/identity-first-language/
With regards to stimming, a service animal can be useful to reduce stimming if deemed necessary. Every person has individual needs. We have updated the article to say “reduce stimming”. Here’s another great article we found on stimming: https://childmind.org/article/autism-and-stimming/
Thank you for your feedback
Anonymous December 2, 2022
I definitely agree with you and the wording in this article isnt the best, something that I think would help autistic people (including me) would be stopping stimming behaviors that harm myself or break objects. these kinds of stims often happen when im angry and cant control my body as well.
Annie Sager January 17, 2022
Please change this to say harmful stimming. Happy stims are not negative and they help us regulate our emotions. We flap when we are happy. Why is that bad? Because it’s “disruptive”? It’s not fair that what we do to show our emotions (even happy emotions) is seen as a bad thing. It hurts and is very frustrating.
FoxxxyDragon February 26, 2022
Sometimes what may not seem like something that needs to be controlled actually is, not just because of the effect something has on the person doing something. I completely understand that Autistic people flap when they are happy and it may seem like something that is just disruptive. However, just like many things there is an appropriate time to do things and inappropriate times to that same thing. My son often flaps, Sometimes he forgets he has things in his hands. We had been practicing jump roping, and when we were finished I needed to use the restroom, as I was walking out of the bathroom I saw on the screen that my son had gotten the jump rope even though I had taken it out of the room and had been flapping, While flapping my son got tangled up in the jump rope and had essentially “tied” himself up. I am thankful it didn’t wrap around his neck, so yes, flapping can be more than simply disruptive. That is the only potentially fatal flapping situation we had. But not the only time flapping proved to be dangerous. Another time my son was watching his favorite movie and got excited and started running around and flapping, He had a toy in his hand that got launched through the window causing big pieces of glass to be in the floor, not to mention now my son could climb out of the window. Our dog is trained to alert us if our son gains access to outside and of course the window breaking was loud too, but our dog also kept our son away from the dangerous pieces of glass while I got things under control. I definitely will be looking into adding the disruption of stimming to our dogs skill set because while disruptive, flapping can be dangerous too.