Easter Seals: Serving Children with Autism
For those of you who do not yet know me, my name is Ann Davidson and I joined the CTC office team back in August. As part of my onboarding, I have been visiting our various programs around the city to get a firsthand look at the great work our volunteers, both dog and human, are doing. Recently, I visited one of our programs for children with autism spectrum disorders, and it was truly eye opening. I’d like to share that experience with you today.
I watched as our volunteers and program leader worked with a class of twelve year olds. When I was that age, the biggest concerns on my mind were my circle of friends, getting good grades in school, and how well my volleyball team was doing. In retrospect, I had very few serious cares or worries. It was a very simple and easygoing time in my life. The kids we encountered are, sadly, not enjoying the same easygoing childhood that I had and have much more serious hurdles to overcome than making a sports team.
Many struggle with social deficits, meaning that they lack the everyday social graces that many of us take for granted. Some made no eye contact, others stared directly at me for extended periods of time. Another challenge they face is limited communication skills, with many finding it difficult to express themselves verbally and sometimes simply making noises to indicate their feelings and needs. They also have a difficult time focusing on tasks for even short periods of time, making the learning process an enormous challenge. Any kind of stimulation can get them off track from the lesson plan.
When our volunteers and therapy dogs entered the room, you could see the students’ faces light up. These volunteers stop by on a weekly basis, so the students have come to expect and look forward to their visits. While many of them likely see this time as a fun opportunity to visit with dogs, the activities they are performing are actually moving them closer to their individualized education program goals. Each volunteer has a Velcro board on which the students can easily use pictures to express what activities they would like to perform with the dog that day, helping them to improve their communication skills as they show the volunteers what they are interested in. As they begin the activities, the mere presence of the dog helps to focus their attention for longer periods than they might otherwise be able to maintain. By interacting with the volunteers and getting feedback on their behavior, they are honing their social skills to be more able to interact appropriately with the world at large.
While I was only there for one session, I was very impressed to hear the progress some of these students had made with CTC therapy dogs. One student approached me and shook my hand to introduce himself, and I learned that this small social gesture, which most of us completely take for granted, is something the child had been working on for a very long time. I watched as another student focused intently while walking one of the dogs down a hallway, no small feat for someone struggling with this condition. Another student, who used very few words during my visit, was able to express a desire to pet one of the dogs using the Velcro board.
I was also very impressed by the fortitude and obedience of the therapy dogs. A student stepped on one dog’s tail, and he did not even flinch at the pain it must have caused. While one of the dogs lay on the floor to be petted, another student jumped up and down and screamed mere inches from the dog’s face, and she did not so much as move a muscle. Some of the things these dogs endured was more than many humans, who have an understanding of the situation they are in, could tolerate without reacting, and yet the dogs only looked lovingly at these kids without even missing a beat.
Each encounter I witness with these therapy dogs strengthens my belief that the human-animal bond has a power to accomplish what we often cannot, despite our best efforts. I cannot thank you enough for your support of our groundbreaking work with these very special kids.
Please consider donating today to help fund our unique programs for children with autism and other chronic disabilities.
Ann M. Davidson