The Autistic Journalist

Using words to explain the mind

Posts Tagged ‘therapy dog

Autism service dog leads own experiment

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Wendy Givens brings Madison to school. Photo by Michal Thompson.

FOX affiliate KPTV in Portland recently published a story about an autism service dog who found himself at the center of an experiment. Jordan Givens, a 10-year-old autistic fourth-grader, has started bringing his service dog, a German shepherd named Madison, to Patterson Elementary School in Hillsboro. Although the Hillsboro School District originally disallowed Madison to sit with Jordan in class because they said Jordan was adequately achieving his goals in his individual education plan, they are now allowing Madison in Jordan’s classes to find out if the German shepherd helps Jordan function more effectively in school.

Wendy Givens, Jordan’s mother, already believes Madison is a metaphorical portal. She says Madison is trained in behavior disruption, which means he helps Jordan’s bouts with aggressions and calms his senses. The school’s principal says Jordan’s teacher is considering the dog’s effect on other students, adding that his classmates appear prepared to adapt Madison into their routine. The experiment also has the support of the U.S. Attorney in Oregon.

The story points out the continuing efforts to spread autism awareness throughout all communities. Normally, dogs aren’t allowed on school grounds unless there are mitigating circumstances. Usually, such circumstances involve physical disabilities, which autism is not. Recall that the disorder can be difficult to detect with the naked eye, so even if Jordan’s school district is aware of his condition, there’s a possibility the school district may not see what’s wrong with him, and that may have caused the small ordeal about allowing Madison in school.

Madison has served as the Givens’ service dog for three years, although we aren’t told much about the shepherd’s impact with Jordan. The story’s focus was why the dog wasn’t allowed in school, so it’s not surprising that little information about the bond between Madison and Jordan is divulged. TV news stories have short windows for stories, so unless they’re airing a longer feature, broadcast reporters can’t spend much time on topics related to but not about the primary theme.

Depending on who comes across this story, Madison may not be just the center of a local experiment, but a regional or perhaps national one. Approaching autistic students still leaves school officials and parents scratching their heads because of low data for accommodations outside of special education classes. The development between Madison, Jordan and his classmates could provide some insight on the success of additional resources.

No (therapy) dogs allowed?

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Photo by Olivia Bucks, The Oregonian

There are two issues to the story I’m about to present. Autism is clearly one of them, but the other is something we’ll likely hear more about as more parents consider getting a therapy dog to assist their autistic children: are they truly service animals or well-trained pets?

The most recent episode is covered by The Oregonian. An autistic boy with severe complications, which includes attempting to hit other classmates and teachers at the elementary school he attends, gets assistance from a therapy dog his parents got for him. Madison, a two-year-old German Shepherd, mitigates the boy’s symptoms by stopping him when he attempts to run away (a common side effect caused by a lack of environmental awareness), and lying on him when he suffers an emotional meltdown (also common because they often lack knowledge on less violent alternatives to express emotional distress). However, the Hillsboro School District won’t allow Madison to go to school with his owner, saying the boy is doing fine on his own.

The refusal to allow Madison in school has led to the U.S. Justice Department investigating a complaint from Disability Rights Oregon that could affect other families seeking therapy animals for assistance. The school district argues that it’s a matter of process, saying there is no need for a service animal if there’s a student doing well in school. Therapy dogs aren’t covered under the Americans with Disabilities Act, but are growing in popularity. Still, fully-trained dogs helping autistic students in public schools are rare. The Autism Society of Oregon says that school districts will fall back on basic policies because therapy dogs are new territory for them.

From a social perspective, it’s a two-pronged pitchfork. It’s not unusual for neurotypicals to go with the simplicity route. They don’t hold a vendetta against the disabled, but they sometimes lack an understanding of that community because they don’t have to deal with them on a daily basis. The school district was also concerned about allergies and students who fear dogs, but the Hillsboro superintendent dismissed them as primary issues. The story’s lead would contradict what the school district is suggesting, and if that’s indeed true, the school district’s statement also raises questions about what constitutes “doing well” in school. Is he doing well academically, or doing well because he’s removed from a mainstream setting where other students would be at risk from the boy’s behaviors. One solution to resolve this dispute is adopting what the Beaverton School District did and have the dog go to school with the boy on a trial basis, making observations on how the boy behaves with the dog versus without him.

Human rights aren’t the only issue here. The story also reflects how people define service animals. Parents who use therapy dogs for children with autism would most likely claim that therapy dogs are service animals, along with the trainers who send therapy dogs to families once training is completed. It gets murky with everyone else, and opinions are reached on mostly personal levels versus scientific ones. The place where Madison was trained, 4 Paws for Ability, says the German Shepherd received 500 hours of training before he was assigned to his family in Oregon.

The article presents some new ingredients that will likely be used as the autism debate evolves. The story does more than cite arguments from both sides of the story. Otherwise, we wouldn’t have learned that Oregon has dealt with this issue before in the Portland area. Don’t be surprised if you see a similar story appear sometime in your local newspaper or TV station; it’s a fresh look that avoids rehashing what most reporters have already told us about autism. Even I haven’t considered the debate about service animals and autism because I never required the use of a therapy dog, but this story shows us that civil rights in the autism community aren’t limited to humans.

Written by TheSportsBrain

January 13, 2010 at 11:16 am