Not Just Any Friend: Service Dogs and Autism
Date Revised: January 20, 2023
Best friends can be hard to find, especially for children on the autism spectrum whose differences may set them apart.
Matthew Evans, a 12-year-old with autism, is fortunate to have Clarence. In a Facebook post, Matthew explains, “I have a friend at school named Clarence. He is in all my classes and always sits next to me.”
Just don’t count on Clarence for help with homework: Clarence is Matthew’s service dog. Clarence helps Matthew, a member of the SPARK autism study, by providing deep pressure therapy. A dog trainer taught Clarence to lie across Matthew’s lap when he is stressed or experiencing sensory overload, a common issue in autism.
“They both need each other. It’s a miraculous relationship,” says Matthew’s mother, Melissa Evans, who also participates in SPARK research.
People with autism, just like people with other conditions, may have a service dog. Service animals are dogs trained to perform at least one task related to a person’s disability, according to the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Examples of tasks include protecting someone during a seizure, alerting a deaf person to an alarm, and calming someone with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder who is having an anxiety attack, according to a U.S. ADA website.1 An estimated 500,000 people in the U.S. have a service dog, a tiny fraction of those with disabilities.2
Besides providing deep pressure therapy, service dogs can be trained to help autistic people who wander or run away from safe places. The dog can be tethered to the person to prevent them from wandering, a dangerous behavior that affects nearly half of children with autism.3
Service dogs can go into any public place where the people they support can go, such as schools, doctors’ offices, buses, government buildings, amusement parks, stores, and restaurants.1
That is not true for animals that provide comfort, such as therapy animals that visit hospitals and schools, or pets that provide emotional support to their owners. Those animals can only go where a business or property owner allows them to go.
Finding the Right Dog To Be a Service Animal
The Evans family already owned several dogs when a health care provider recommended that Matthew get a service dog, Melissa Evans says.
A dog trainer volunteered to go to an animal shelter with the Evans family to help them find the right dog.
Regardless of breed, it’s important to select a dog with the right temperament to handle what can be stressful work when they are out in public, explains Chris Diefenthaler, executive director of Assistance Dogs International (ADI). ADI is a coalition of nonprofit groups that train and place service dogs, hearing dogs for the deaf, and guide dogs for people with impaired vision.
The Evanses were lucky in their search for a service dog. “The trainer just worked with Clarence for a couple of minutes and said, ‘He is perfect. If you don’t adopt him, I will,'” says Melissa Evans. A service dog can be any breed or mix. Clarence is part German shepherd, although Labradors and golden retrievers are among the most popular.
Matthew bonded almost instantly with Clarence, who focused on the boy rather than his siblings or parents. That’s important. Unlike therapy animals, which should enjoy interacting with everyone they meet, service dogs should devote their attention to one person, their handler, explains Taylor Chastain Griffin, Ph.D., executive director of the Association of Animal-Assisted Intervention Professionals and an official at Pet Partners, which registers therapy animals.
A service dog’s handler is the person with a disability or medical condition, or their parent, in the case of a young child.
Even the name the shelter had given the dog ─ Clarence ─ appealed to the Evanses. They visited the shelter around Christmas, and Clarence is the name of the guardian angel in the classic Christmas film, “It’s a Wonderful Life,” an Evans family favorite.
Training an Autism Service Dog
The Evans family, who lives in Texas, found a dog trainer who trained Clarence for about $3,000.
The cost of a trained service dog can vary widely, Diefenthaler says. Some organizations may charge a nominal application fee, if they have a lot of donor funding to cover their costs. But others may ask a person to pay or raise $20,000 or more for them to breed, train, and place the service dog.
Organizations may spend a year or more raising and training dogs that meet their standards to become a service dog. Besides performing tasks, a service dog should not misbehave when they are working ─ no barking, jumping on people, attacking other animals, or relieving themselves inappropriately, Diefenthaler explains.
If you see a service dog that is misbehaving, it may not be a real service dog, families and dog trainers say. “It’s ridiculously easy to get a vest and a badge that says, ‘service dog,’ although it’s not a service dog,” says Tom Evans, Matthew’s father.
Diefenthaler encourages families to do their homework before obtaining a service dog. “It’s always a ‘buyer beware’ market. Families should contact multiple organizations that serve their location to find the one best suited for their situation and needs,” she says. Her group has a list of accredited trainers in the United States and abroad.
Service dogs for autism, like other animal-assisted interventions, have not been studied thoroughly enough to draw conclusions about their effectiveness, says Leanne O. Nieforth, Ph.D. She is part of a research team that is studying service animals. Some small studies suggest that service dogs can increase safety or reduce stress for autistic people and their families.4, 5
Tasks Service Dogs Could Perform for an Autistic Person
For some people, a service dog may make it easier to do activities in their community. “We have found that some families are very isolated. They are not leaving the house because of safety concerns about wandering and self-regulatory concerns, like meltdowns,” explains Adriana Hutchings, a board member of Autism Service Dogs of America (ASDA), a nonprofit in Oregon that trains service dogs for autistic people.
Besides helping with wandering and deep pressure, autism service dogs may be trained to do other tasks. For example, many people with autism are sensitive to noise, touch, lights, or other input from their senses. If someone strongly dislikes being touched or jostled in crowded places, a service dog could be trained to circle around the handler or position himself to keep people from getting too close. “The person with a service dog can go to the zoo or someplace like that, and may not be completely overwhelmed by it,” says Hutchings, whose 9-year-old daughter has an autism service dog.
Volunteers and trainers with ASDA take potential service dogs to stores, amusement parks, arcades, train stations, and many other places that their handler may go, to get them accustomed to working there, she says. The process can take two to three years.
ASDA charges about $18,000 for a service dog and has a wait list, Hutchings says. Some families use online or in-person fundraisers for their dogs. “I raised the money for my child’s dog in six months with a GoFundMe. Others have raised the money through trivia nights at a local pub, for example,” she says.
A Service Dog at School
For Matthew, Clarence is more than just a service dog. Besides going to school with Matthew, Clarence is his companion at home. “It’s kind of like an emotional bond between us,” Matthew says.
Although Matthew’s school initially had questions about Clarence, the teachers and students adapted to the dog’s presence in the classroom. Some students asked to pet him, which is not allowed, but they are used to him now, Matthew says.
In fact, Clarence got his photo in the yearbook. Just like everyone else who goes to the school.
Interested in joining SPARK? Here’s what you should know.
Photo provided by Melissa Evans.
- Read a SPARK article, “What Do We Really Know about Animal Interventions for Autism?
- Watch a webinar with Leanne O. Nieforth, Ph.D., on “Animal-Assisted Interventions for Autism Spectrum Disorder.”
- Read “Frequently Asked Questions about Service Animals and the ADA.”
- See Assistance Dogs International for more information.
- U.S. Department of Justice Civil Rights Division. https://www.ada.gov/resources/service-animals-2010-requirements/. Accessed Jan. 10, 2023.
- Trainer M. https://share.america.gov/service-dogs-save-lives/. (2016) Accessed Jan. 10, 2023.
- Anderson C. et al. Pediatrics 130, 870-877 (2012) PubMed
- Fecteau S.M. et al. Biol. Psychol. 123, 187-195 (2017) PubMed
- Leung J.Y. et al. Aust. Occup. Ther. J. 69, 50-63 (2022) PubMed