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Thursday, November 11, 2010

Autism: Working like a dog












Source:
For Autistic Children, Therapy on Four Legs By KAREN JONES (NY Times)

SHADOW, a black Labrador retriever, knows how to interact with people without overreacting to them — a necessity for a well-trained therapy dog, said her owner and handler, Ani Shaker.

Considered “bombproof,” meaning she will remain calm in nearly any situation, Shadow, and Ms. Shaker, volunteer at the Anderson Center for Autism in Staatsburg, N.Y., in the Hudson Valley north of New York City.

“As soon as I get her working vest out, she jumps up and her little tail starts wagging,” Ms. Shaker said. “She loves the work. That’s what she lives for, and I can tell she knows she is helping someone else feel good.”

Shadow and Ms. Shaker, an equestrian trainer, are one of six teams that have been volunteering at the Anderson Center for two years. They are part of the Good Dog Foundation, a nonprofit based in New York that provides therapy services throughout the East Coast.

Unlike service dogs who live 24/7 with people with disabilities, therapy dogs visit treatment centers and residential schools. The Good Dog teams go through a nine-week training course, said Susan Fireman, executive trainer and program coordinator for upstate New York, the Berkshires in Massachusetts and Litchfield County, Conn. “These dogs have to be very calm and be able to absorb a certain amount of stress without becoming stressed themselves,” she said.

One in every 110 children in the United States has an autism spectrum disorder, with autism disorder being the most commonly recognized subtype, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Children with autism have mild to severe degrees of difficulty with social, communication and emotional skills. It is usually a lifelong disability with no definitive cause or cure. Autism, which is classified as a developmental disability, is four times more likely to occur in boys.

“We are hearing more and more from families we serve that therapy dogs have had an overall positive effect on their children,” said Marguerite Colston, vice president of constituent relations at the Autism Society, a national grassroots organization.

Because each person with autism experiences it differently, there is no certainty a therapy dog will help, she said, but for certain individuals, a dog “has eased their anxiety and has even helped some to open up to others, as individuals with autism are typically more withdrawn and less likely to socialize.”

The Anderson Center is a year-round residence and school for children and young adults ages 5 to 21 with moderate to severe symptoms, said Dr. Austin Rynne, its director of health and related services. “The children we serve here cannot be served in their own school district,” he said. “They cannot work and have difficulty being managed at home.”

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