Autism and Dogs

Updated: Feb 28, 2020

When my son Tyler was around 2 1/2 years old, we began to notice that there was something different in the way that he looked at us and how he interacted. He had such sweet, beautiful eyes and a loving heart, but there was a certain disconnect, a subtle distance that we just couldn’t put our finger on.

When he was a baby we marveled at how he seemed so happily independent. He was the type of child who would awaken in his crib with a smile, lay in a state of self-content with little need for interaction from anyone other than himself. Over time we began to notice a lack of eye contact when we would speak with him, and hesitation on his part to remain engaged in normal conversation. After receiving advice from friends, and by way of our own observations, we began to realize that there was something going on with our sweet boy.

It’s a very hard reality to face, when a dear friend utters the words, “I think there’s something going on with your boy. Have you checked to see if he’s on the Autism Spectrum?”

And so our life in the world of Autism Spectrum Disorder began.

The fact of the matter is Autism affects all of us. According to the Autism Society one percent of the population of children in the U.S. ages 3-27 has an autism spectrum disorder and it’s growing over 10% every year. As concerned new parents, we wanted to make sure we were taking every action we could to give our son the best options in life.

My wife and I realized pretty early on that we needed to find every possible angle of connection for him that we could find. Overwhelmed by the endless services available: local, state, federal, not to mention private versus public options, we did extensive research on early intervention methods. We had already realized his desire for structure, consistency, and repetition, as these seemed to be common traits throughout the spectrum of autism. We were not professionals, but in the interest of doing all we could as parents, we were determined to do our very best remain proactive for him in our parental journey.

Since services are being cut everyday due to lack of funding, we knew we couldn’t just sit around waiting for a miracle. We decided to set out pursuing the things that he showed a natural interest in, and from these points of interest we would create a program for him which would require him to interact in order to gain access. There were two real draws for Tyler, as he showed interest in both our family dogs, and the Hot Wheels toy cars we bought for him. The goal was to find ways for him to interact while using the cars or the dogs as the catalyst for change that would bring him out of his shell.

We were not content to simply put him with a dog in the hopes that he would connect. My goal was to create interactions between Tyler and our dogs which would help teach him the need to initiate conversation, as well as a sense of responsibility to care for another being, outside of himself. Since dogs also enjoy structured learning and interaction, we felt that we might just have a chance to make some real connections. Connections that with our trained dogs, could give Tyler some small victories in the short term. Our hope was that these victories would encourage him to push himself in areas of communication, which had proved very frustrating in the past.

What we realized through our practice was that many of the commands and prompts that Tyler needed to give the dogs, were prompts he also needed to learn in his own life. For instance, it was helpful for him to learn that a dog must wait at the door and receive permission before going through. By learning this, Tyler also learned how to manage his own personal space through control and command, yet another area he himself struggled to grasp. Personal space is a priority for us and this was an amazing realization.

I must say that Tyler always showed a lot of interest in the dogs, but when we began the work of requiring words, hand signals, and initiation of communication, it was like watching a light bulb suddenly switch on. Although, Tyler certainly didn’t get a handle on it right away, he could see even the most marginal of result. This was a very big deal for Tyler, and proved to be the moment where a couple of parents found a small crack in the wall that is autism.

We worked on ways for him to deal with unsuccessful commands, how to regulate his frustrations, and how to try different approaches when at an impasse. To simply lead the dogs, we felt was an accomplishment not unlike winning the lottery, when we first began to see him going through the motions on his own without any guidance.

Tyler now deals with his frustrations far more successfully thanks to his work with the dogs. He has learned how to look out for the safety of another, especially while out in public at stop signs, and crosswalks. He looks out for his little sister, and his dogs, by making sure she stops at the curb and looks both ways before crossing. He has even become the go-to-guy at his elementary school after performing off leash dog obedience in front of his entire class. This accomplishment certainly boosted his confidence in the classroom, and his profile amongst his peers.

For us, was truly an unexpected gift that was never even considered at the outset of our work with Tyler and the family dogs.

Written by Tyson Kilmer,