Assistance Dogs Can Be Companions to Kids with Autism

Article excerpt

Byline: SARAH ROSE STEWART

FERNANDINA BEACH - Autism assistance dogs are different from their canine counterparts in the service world, and their role perhaps much lesser known.

But they're not strangers to Nassau County, where dogs have been trained to assist children with autism since Project CHANCE began in 2004.

CHANCE stands for Canines Helping Anyone Needing Courage and Empowerment, which describes "exactly what [the] dogs do," said B.J. Szwedzinski, president and head trainer with the nonprofit training school.

On Saturday, March 28, Szwedzinski is inviting the public to watch CHANCE dogs in action at Dog Leg Productions, the organization's boarding facility and training grounds at 95512 Arbor Lane. From 11 a.m. to 2 p.m., people can bring their dogs to swim, run and play. Lunch will be provided. Numbered tennis balls will be sold for a raffle and thrown into a pond, and Bella, one of the assistance dogs, will retrieve three winning balls from the pond. Half of the event proceeds will go to the organization and the other half will be split between the winners.

Autism assistance dogs naturally provide emotional support and comradeship, Szwedzinski said, which helps to assuage a large part of the social isolation faced by children with autism.

"The concrete evidence of improvement in the children we help is there," Szwedzinski said.

"[The most rewarding part of my work] is watching the kids being able to do things they were never able to do before."

For autistic children experiencing sensory overload, assistance dogs can be much-needed focal points, she said, and the dogs also help keep children safe when they exhibit self-injurious behavior or are unaware of their surroundings. For instance, dogs are trained to safely guide a child while walking near high-density traffic areas. They can be the link between a child with autism and the world.

"A lot of the dogs' judgment is intuitive because of the way [they were] raised, the standards they are held to, and their natural abilities to think quickly," Szwedzinski said.

Many of the dogs learn to understand some sign language, especially if a child is not capable of speech.

If a service dog is nearby, Szwedzinski said, it "helps ease acceptance from people that don't understand the often-inappropriate nature of children with autism. …