A dog can help an autistic child feel less stressed and make everyday activities a bit easier. Aileen Scoular explains how a grant from the MCF to Dogs for Good is allowing more families to feel less isolated
Two years ago, BBC drama The A Word opened viewers’ eyes to the challenges faced by families coping with autism. Children and adults diagnosed with autism will see, hear and feel the world differently from their peers and can struggle to engage. The condition is more common than many realise, with The National Autistic Society revealing that there are around 700,000 people on the autism spectrum in the UK, including children and adults of all ages.
Autism touches families, too, and the condition is part of daily life for some 2.8 million people. One charity that fully understands the impact autism has on parents and carers is Dogs for Good. The Oxfordshire charity trains highly skilled assistance dogs to help adults and children with disabilities, as well as therapy dogs to work in communities and schools.
Dogs for Good trained its first autism assistance dog in 2007, and, more recently, the charity has developed a successful programme called Family Dog Workshops. These intimate sessions provide advice and support to parents of children with autism, allowing them to learn how a pet dog could benefit the whole family. As workshop leader Duncan Edwards explains, ‘We want owning a dog to be a positive, energising experience.’
Without specialist support, autistic people and their families are at risk of feeling isolated; autism can also cause severe anxiety that may affect an individual’s ability to engage in daily life. While there is no cure, expert support can help children and their families day to day – something that was backed up in research undertaken by Dogs for Good and the University of Lincoln in 2014. Not only were children with a family dog calmer, happier and less likely to have a meltdown, but within just 10 weeks of getting a family dog, parents also showed significantly reduced stress levels.
‘We have always been convinced that dogs can have a positive effect on the family dynamic,’ explains Peter Gorbing, Dogs for Good’s chief executive. ‘Just being able to take the dog for a walk gives you, as a parent, permission to leave the house and give yourself some space. And the silly things that dogs do can diffuse tension and make the whole family laugh together.’
The experience of parents who have attended Family Dog Workshops is testament to the value of the programme. Jacob’s family had a Labrador called Sam when mum Liz attended her first workshop. The experience was transformative: ‘I just couldn’t believe it when the instructors went through what they could teach us and how it might help Jacob. I sat there and cried because I knew it could be life-changing.’
Teenager Harry’s life has also been improved immeasurably by the introduction of the family dog, Barnaby. Now 15, Harry spends much less time alone, and the most positive result has been the family’s change of focus. Harry’s mum, Ceri, says, ‘Having a dog has benefited all of us – but particularly our daughter, Beth. Our world isn’t all about Harry any more; it’s about Barnaby.’
Kath, another workshop participant, echoes Ceri’s sentiments. Kath’s son, Mitchell, was diagnosed with autism as a toddler, and their family life has been transformed by an excitable cocker spaniel called Maggie.
‘Having Maggie has opened up more opportunities for us as a family than I could possibly have imagined,’ says Kath. ‘So much of our life is focussed on Mitchell, who’s an only child, and that puts a certain amount of pressure on him. Having a dog in our lives takes away some of the focus and reduces that pressure.’
From a practical perspective, owning a dog helps children with autism in many ways. Key benefits include companionship and motivation, encouraging children to develop regular routines and empowering them to try new things. Dogs can help in the development of motor skills – throwing a ball or teaching tricks, for example – and can act as a friendly role model. Even learning to say hello can be a big step.
‘Mitchell has never really understood the need for greetings and salutations – like hello and goodbye – so we’ve had to coach him in the past,’ explains Kath. ‘But the first day I picked him up from school with Maggie, he climbed into the car and straight away said, “Hello, Maggie.” That was a huge leap forward.’
‘I was considering an assistance dog, but I quickly realised that what we needed was just a happy family dog’
BREAKING NEW GROUND
Gorbing from Dogs for Good acknowledges that the programme has been a richer source of success stories than he ever imagined. ‘So much credit must go to the families,’ he says. ‘We provide the advice, but it’s up to the families to make dog ownership happen. And I’m delighted and grateful that so many have.’
The success of Dogs for Good brought the charity to the attention of the Masonic Charitable Foundation (MCF), and, in December 2017, the Charity Grants Committee awarded a grant of £60,000 over three years.
‘Autism appears to be much more prevalent than it used to be because the rates of diagnosis have changed,’ explains Andrew Ross, chairman of the Charity Grants Committee at the MCF. ‘My guess is that nearly every family within the masonic community will have some contact with autism, even if it’s not within their own family.
‘Parents of children with autism are working hard to deal with a very challenging condition, so the simple idea that owning a dog can really help many families – by having a calming effect or by helping a child to engage with the outside world – rather caught the committee’s imagination.’
For a small charity like Dogs for Good, the grant will go a long way. ‘We have to deliver on what we promise and meet our beneficiaries’ expectations, so a significant grant like this allows us to plan ahead with confidence,’ Gorbing says. ‘In future, we hope to offer Family Dog Workshops to even more parents. We’re thinking about how to offer online learning opportunities. We’re hugely grateful to the MCF for enabling us to continue what has turned out to be a genuinely groundbreaking programme.’
The three-year grant from the MCF means that a committed, sustained relationship can develop between the MCF and Dogs for Good, and the Charity Grants Committee will receive regular reports on how the money has been used. ‘It’s good to know that we’ll be able to look back in three years’ time and see the difference we have made to a large number of families,’ says Ross.
Kath explains how autism affects her family’s life, and why a cocker spaniel called Maggie has changed things for the better.
‘Mitchell is cautious by nature, but since we got Maggie a year ago, he has become much more confident – it has been incredible to watch. Throwing a toy for Maggie means he now understands the concept of taking turns, and that has helped him to become more relaxed around other children. His teachers are noticing the positive changes, too.
‘Originally, we were concerned about logistics, and that was where the Family Dog Workshops and the after-care support were so helpful. My husband, James, and I love dogs, but we knew we had to get it absolutely right. Initially, I was considering an assistance dog for Mitchell, but I quickly realised that what we needed was just a happy family dog.
‘For example, where Maggie really helps is with transitions. Even a simple transition from the TV to the dinner table is hard for Mitchell, and he needs some sort of activity in between. Now, Maggie acts as a welcome distraction. She has also boosted Mitchell’s confidence in open spaces.
‘Up until last summer, we were having to carry Mitchell around – he’s nearly six now, so that was becoming physically difficult. But when Maggie’s with us, Mitchell often runs ahead with her. Having a family dog has been great for me, too. I was driving everywhere and doing very little exercise. Now, I take Maggie for a daily walk, which gives me some head space and blows the cobwebs away.
‘The Family Dog Workshops were so comprehensive and relaxed, but the most important thing I learned is that there are no rules – different things work for different families and different dogs. I originally thought I’d do lots of puppy training and have this calm, placid dog, and instead we’ve ended up with a complete whirlwind! But that is perfect for Mitchell. Having Maggie bouncing around is ideal for a little boy who just needed to be brought out of himself. I honestly can’t imagine family life without her.’