Service dog helps columnist with autism engage in social activities
Recently, I participated in a roundtable on assistance dogs. Someone asked me, “How does the dog influence your relationships with other people?”
Some people are surprised to learn that due to a diagnosis of autism spectrum disorderr In my mid teens, certain social behaviors such as how to hold a two-way conversation, how to make eye contact, and how to form meaningful relationships with others were all learned behaviors for me. It is common for children and adults with autism to be directly educated about certain social behaviors that typical children and adults often learn naturally through observation and exposure. As a child, I didn’t have a service dog, but I have always loved dogs. When visiting family friends who had dogs, I would briefly say hello to everyone and then run off to find the dog to play with until dinner.
Most of my life, I have been described as very warm, friendly and engaging, but I have never been a very physically loving child. I cried when my parents tried to hug me and even in distress I rarely sought hugs or kisses from parents or other family members. Instead, I would rock back and forth. I was also easily appeased by water: baths, showers, swimming, whatever. Now, although I will give and accept affection, this too was a skill taught over many years that is still often practiced with verbal prompting more than freely. However, this is not the case with dogs.
The idea of a service dog came to me at the end of my last year in college. After about a year or two of having Lucy in the family, my parents and I went for a walk one day. They had started to get a little behind the two of us, and I could hear my mom whisper, “Look the way Adria looks at her.” Sustained eye contact and just happy as a clam. She doesn’t look at people like that.
They also noticed that although I needed to be coached or encouraged to interact with people socially and show them physical affection, I was so happy to spend time walking with Lucy several times a day, to work with her on some skill or just lie with her while stroking her. her as she licked my hands.
Often people don’t consider how sensory-based human relationships are. For some people with autism, all the sensory inputs of a typical relationship can be overwhelming, while interacting with a dog may offer a different alternative. The dog’s presence also helps with social interaction, as people get to know the dog after seeing it so much and like to stop and ask questions, comment and sometimes talk about their own experiences with dogs. The dog becomes a topic of conversation and encourages the client to interact with others when they might not otherwise.
However, I understand dogs better. I never really have to try to understand them because they think very concretely and literally like me. They communicate best with short, simple sentences which is great because you don’t necessarily have to use words all the time. Many people with autism also have expressive language delay, but a dog will know he has done what you want just as well by scratching his head or rubbing his ears or throwing his favorite ball at him, provided that you are consistent. Verbal language is not essential. Dogs also like routine and consistency. This is another similarity to the way people with autism learn. I like that Lucy and MT have a schedule because it helps me structure my day to take care of them.
Lucy changed my life and got to know me like no one has ever before. I guess you could say that the best relationships aren’t always human.