Dogs and Autistic Children

April 2, 2008

Here’s a story we’d like desperately to believe is true: the benefits of service dogs assisting parents raising autistic children.

The evidence so far is anecdotal but heartfelt and persuasive; we’d love to see a double-blind study back up these wonderful stories with some hard data.

Parents claim that specially trained service dogs help make their autistic children “calmer, more social and more comfortable in the world.” The problem with self-reporting like this is that the parents are hardly disinterested parties and they’re not trained observer’s to boot.

The wife of a friend who works with autistic children has told me how eagerly they call her to report some sign of progress. But when she had her next session with the child the ‘breakthrough’ was just. . . a misinterpretation, wishful thinking, something you want so badly that you convince yourself you’ve seen it even though it was never there.

I must admit that I’m not a disinterested party either. I would very much like this be true. Helping a severely disabled child and giving rewarding work and love to a canine, what’s not to like. But we must be careful not to impose our wishes on reality. A case in point is the Facilitated Communication fiasco of a few years back.

The story here was that acutely disabled people, mostly children, could communicate if a trained person helped move their hand where they intended it to go on a keyboard or another surface with multiple options. It turned out to be wishful thinking and self-delusion when subjected to properly controlled conditions. Unconsciously, the facilitators were the ones providing both the intelligence and communication, not the subjects.

There’s something called the ideomotor effect, the kind of phenomenon that is behind such things as dowsing rods and Ouija boards. Your motor control is influenced without your awareness and the only information thus obtained comes from the user, not their environment or the Spirit World.

So the fact that I want this to be true makes me call all the more strongly for independent verification. College of Veterinary Medicine at Cornell University, are you reading this?

You know, instead of buying a hand-embroidered suede lounge cushion “Lotus Bed” for your dog (see previous post “Doga: Dog Yoga”) I’d ask you to please send that money to 4 Paws for Ability.

Their mission is to enrich the lives of people with disabilities by training and placing service animals to provide companionship and promote independent living.

Your dog doesn’t need a luxury Lotus Bed (trust me on this one), and these good folks could use your support to help make a real difference in people’s lives.

Unless you think that buying a Shanti stick inscribed with the mantra of Peace for your pooch is a better deal.


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